FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — At 90 years old and not traveling much, Jack Greenberg didn’t make the NAACP’s symposium here commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. But the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund still teaches at Columbia Law School and follows the nation’s civil rights laws to the minutest detail.
So he was familiar with the court’s ruling in April upholding a Michigan constitutional amendment through which voters turned back affirmative-action programs, and answered unhesitatingly when I called him at his home in New York.
By their logic in the Michigan case, I asked, would the justices find slavery constitutional if voters decided to approve it?
“Yes,” he said without missing a beat — then added, “well, maybe not slavery.”
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What made me think I could lead this witness?
One of three surviving members of arguably the greatest legal team ever, Greenberg was hired by Thurgood Marshall to help draft and argue the landmark case that overturned legalized segregation on May 17, 1954. An unqualified legal victory, its legacy is also marked by foot-dragging and intransigence.
“Nobody did anything they weren’t forced to do,” Greenberg said of states and school districts refusing to desegregate, resistance that he says had nothing to do with the court’s vague timetable of achieving it “with all deliberate speed” and everything to do with racism.
“They weren’t going slowly. They just weren’t doing anything,” he said. “So you tell them to do something, and they’ll say no, they won’t do it, and they’ll litigate for three or four years, and then the whole educational system is turned inside out.”
One of the first places to suffer that upheaval was Little Rock, Ark., where federal troops were mobilized to quell violent mobs at Central High School in 1957. At the Fort Lauderdale symposium this week, Ernest Green recalled how an initial cadre of 25 black students volunteering to integrate the high school shrank to “The Little Rock Nine,” of which he was one.
“There’s a long line of people who would tell you how much they supported (integration) in 1957, but that wasn’t true,” he said. “It was difficult to be standing there by yourself.”
Yet it was also difficult to tolerate inequity, Green said, adding that before he enrolled, “I thought, ‘What the hell could they be doing in that (school) building that was four times the size of our building?’ ”
Moderating the forum was Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who read from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s 1954 decision describing education as “the very foundation of good citizenship” and “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Panelist Judith Browne-Dianis of the civil-rights group The Advancement Project said that equality has yet to be achieved.
“The fact that schools and adults still see (children of color) as inferior, that is something that we haven’t fixed yet,” she said.
Backing her up is a federal Department of Education study released in March showing black K-12 students three and a half times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than their white peers — a disparity many attribute to a perception of black children as more violent or disobedient than white.
Released just this week is another study, “Brown at 60,” from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, proclaiming “great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future” since the decision.
“The (current) Supreme Court has fundamentally changed desegregation law, and many major court orders have been dropped,” the report reads, citing recent rulings that have chipped away at Brown. “Our statistical analysis shows that segregation increased substantially after the plans were terminated in many large districts.”
With that dire an assessment, was it all worth it?
To any sane person, of course it was. In education, millions of students of all races have made unparalleled achievement under reforms begun by Brown, and the removal of societal indignities such as separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow travel on buses and trains — to say nothing of being lynched for attempting to vote — goes to the heart of fulfilling the promise of America.
But it takes time, and constant, determined agitation, a sharp-witted 90-year-old on the phone from New York reminds me.
“There’s always reason to be despondent,” he says, “and there’s always a reason for hope.”
Robin Washington of Duluth, Minn., writes frequently on the history of the civil rights movement. He produced the PBS documentary “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” about the Supreme Court’s 1946 Morgan v. Virginia decision, one of the NAACP-litigated cases laying the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education. He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.