“You know, it was pretty staggering. It put an end to essentially something that the Civil War was unable to end.” -Legal Defense Fund Attorney Jack Greenberg, describing his reaction after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education
I was heartbroken by the recent death of Jack Greenberg, one of the last great legal links to Brown v. Board of Education and my first boss out of law school. What a privilege to work in a legal powerhouse with Jack and Constance Baker Motley, Derrick Bell, James Nabrit, III and many other gifted and committed civil rights attorneys. As the son of European Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Jack Greenberg learned to hate prejudice and injustice. In 1949 at age 24 he became an assistant counsel to Thurgood Marshall, the lion who was the founding head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Over the next five years he was part of Marshall’s team of extraordinary lawyers arguing the cases that led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional.
When Thurgood Marshall was named to the federal bench in 1961, he chose Jack Greenberg to succeed him as head of what had become simply the Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Jack spent the next 23 years fighting and winning a number of key court decisions, including rulings on school desegregation, employment discrimination, and voting rights. Julius Chambers who later succeeded Jack Greenberg as director counsel and I were lucky enough to be the first two LDF Lehman Fellowship interns — new lawyers who wanted to practice in the South after a year of training with LDF’s extraordinary lawyers. I headed off to Jackson, Mississippi to set up a “legal factory” to handle the many cases generated by hundreds of civil rights arrests during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Julius opened a civil rights practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Years later Jack Greenberg explained that the courts had to become a crucial instrument in finishing some of the unfinished business of the Civil War and Reconstruction because the original legal protections offered to Black citizens had never been honored, including the critical right to vote: “Blacks couldn’t vote in the South . . . Southern states engaged in all kinds of stratagems to keep Blacks out. So there was absolutely no political power. It was impossible even to pass an anti-lynching bill. There was talk about armed revolution, but that would be suicidal. And so the only place to turn was the courts.” And the courts still are — in the South and North — the only means of stopping large scale voter suppression methods today from Ohio to North Carolina.
The landmark court victories of the Civil Rights era changed our nation forever. Yet we are once again facing a future where millions of America’s children of color still have separate and unequal chances during their early years of greatest brain development and in their school classrooms. As the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights explains: “It took ten years after Brown, but beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation committed to desegregation and it worked. Courts and executive agencies consistently supported desegregation plans and from 1968 to 1988, as more schools integrated, academic achievement increased for African American students. But the legal and political tide turned against integration during the 1980s. Courts stopped ordering desegregation plans and began dismantling existing plans — both court-ordered and voluntary. Federal agencies stopped aggressive enforcement and by 1989 schools were beginning to resegregate, reversing many of the academic gains of the previous 20 years.”
The Leadership Conference added: “For African Americans in the South, which is now significantly more integrated than most of the rest of the country, the rate of resegregation since 1988 is the worst. In the Northeast, where schools have been getting more segregated since the 1960s, and in many large cities, minority students are the most segregated. For Hispanic students, integration never had a chance to take hold in any region . . . At the same time, rapid growth in the Hispanic and African American population and growing income disparities have increased the concentration of minorities in high poverty districts.”
The drift back to segregated and substandard schools denying millions of poor children of color the basic literacy, numeracy and other skills they will need to work in our increasingly competitive globalized economy must stop. We cannot sit by and continue to watch the resegregation of America on our watch and the relegation of millions of people to second class citizenship. We must have a path forward that is integrated and equal.
The great civil rights lawyer Charles Houston who laid the foundation for later progress, Thurgood Marshall, Jim Nabrit, Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, Jack Greenberg and other legal giants of their time scored key court victories in an era when voting was too often impossible for Black citizens. But every one of us must use the hard won right to vote today as the very first step in choosing leaders who share our vision for a more level education playing field for all children. We must soundly reject all attempts to take away that empowering constitutional right and to illegally intimidate people seeking to use their right to vote. There can be no tolerance for any efforts in any arena to roll back the clock on more than a half century of progress and steal our children’s futures.
I want to send a blunt and imperative message to all the millennials — especially Black millennials and all Black citizens. You must vote for better futures for the millions of children left behind and for closing our country’s morally obscene and killing income, wealth, and educational gaps. Get out and vote and say thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Medgar Evers and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who were beaten, bombed and killed for your and my right to vote. Get out to vote for Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland who can’t vote to stop renegade law enforcement practices. Get out to vote for all those hungry and homeless and illiterate children who have no voice in the political process and have to make their way daily through gun saturated streets of terror. Get out to vote to help ensure that another Newtown tragedy does not occur at the hands of an unstable adolescent wielding a gun loaded with large capacity ammunition magazines that have no business in the hands of unstable youths.
As Jack Greenberg looked back over the Legal Defense Fund’s impact he once said, “Now, when there’s a very considerable effort to roll things back, we’re in a position to resist, to hold on to almost all our gains until the country starts going in the other direction. They can throw us back a few hundred yards, but we’re dug in too deep.”
We know the direction our children and nation need to go in order for both to thrive. We must never be turned around on the road to equality and justice in every sphere. Anyone who stays at home and doesn’t go out to vote disrespects the sacrifice of our ancestors and ignores great slave foremother Harriet Tubman who freed herself to keep going forward.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.