A Colloquy with Jack Greenberg about Brown: Experiences and Reflections

By Sobel, Richard | Constitutional Commentary, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

A Colloquy with Jack Greenberg about Brown: Experiences and Reflections


Sobel, Richard, Constitutional Commentary


This colloquy draws from conversations with Jack Greenberg about this experiences with and the significance of Brown v. Board of Education. The discussion between Greenberg and Richard Sobel took place during class in March 1995, as Part of a seminar on civil rights law at Princeton University. A follow-up interview in May 1995 provided details on topics broached earlier. Edited together they provide intriguing insights into the historic case and Jack Greenberg's role.

Jack Greenberg: Before and after class, Richard Sobel and I have been talking about some issues addressed here. And I thought it would be a better way of exploring some of the issues of Brown v. Board of Education,(1) some of the factors that are involved in it, if we would engage in a colloquy. And so he may ask questions and make observations, and we'll talk back and forth. I'm going to ask Professor Sobel to address some things that concern him, and then we'll have a colloquy.

Richard Sobel: I think all of us are aware how historic the Brown decision is. As a historian and a political scientist. questions come to mind which other people have asked to. (I brought my precept from the history of law because the story of what's going on here is so important.) I want to get into history as I talk about it in my classes, as it comes at the time it's occurring, and not just in retrospect.

I'd like to see if we could begin with some historic questions about what it was like at the time that Brown was being decided. If you look at the front of Crusaders in the Courts(2) you see a much younger Jack Greenberg. And I'd like to try to take you back to that time. You talk in the book (p. 166) about how you had just been admitted [12/8/52] to practice before the Supreme Court. Can you give us some sense of how you felt the day that you went to the Supreme Court to argue your part of Brown v. Board of Education, though you'd also done some of the Kansas [case]?(3)

JG: Well, these are important personal reflections that had, I think, no widespread political significance. I'm happy to answer your questions. . .

RS: But this is something that People are interested in.

JG: I mentioned in the book that I'd been in the Supreme Court several times before (cf. p. 74). I had been there for argument in the Groveland case.(4) I had been there for the argument of Sweatt(5) and McLaurin.(6) The first time I went into the Supreme Court -- I am not a religious person and did not have a religious upbringing, but I felt as if I was walking into a synagogue and somehow I just didn't have my skull cap on. My personal reaction was, for what it's worth, that I was in a holy place; that was my gut reaction. (p. 74).

RS: How did you feel when you got there, when you actually had to stand up and address the Court [for the first time]?

JG: "Was I scared? Was I frightened? Was I anxious?" The answer's no, I wasn't because we had rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. I knew pretty much what I was going to say. The arguments had been rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. It was not as if we walked in there and gave it for the first time. We had "dry runs." (p. 72) (I really think we were the first ones to do that, but before, Thurgood Marshall, Bill Hastie and Charles Houston used to have dress rehearsals in the basement of the Howard Law library. The next time I heard of it was when John F. Kennedy was debating Nixon on television [1960] and they put him through a dry run.) Having rehearsed it, people came up to me afterwards and said "Hey, that was really good." And I thought I was on top of it. (p. 174)

RS: You said that you weren't nervous, but you didn't really say how you did feel. Can you recall what sort of emotions were going through your mind at the time that you were arguing this momentous case before the Court?

JG: Well, I'll tell you what I do recall, and obviously I recall something. But I'm not very demonstrative externally or internally, and if I can liken it to something, I was on a ship that landed on Iwo Jima in the first wave [February 1945]. …

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