CRUSADERS IN THE COURTS
How a Small Group of Dedicated Lawyers
Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution
By Jack Greenberg
633 pages, Basic Books, $30
AN ELABORATE SYSTEM of state-sponsored racial segregation
prevailed in the United States during the first half of the 20th
century. Segregation was sanctioned by the "separate but equal"
doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson, a case decided by the Supreme
Court in 1896.
In reality, the separate facilities provided for
African-Americans were nearly always demonstrably inferior to those
reserved for whites. Segregation merely formalized a racial
hierarchy that was designed solely to ensure the subordinate status
of black Americans.
The system remained unchallenged until the mid-1930s, when the
NAACP launched a long-range, carefully orchestrated litigation
campaign that challenged segregation via a series of Supreme Court
cases. These efforts eventually resulted in Brown vs. Board of
Education, the case in which the Supreme Court declared segregation
in public education unconstitutional.
The legal challenge was developed and implemented by a small
group of lawyers, almost all of whom were associated with the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the subject of Jack Greenberg's
new book. The "Inc. Fund," as it became known in later years, was
established as a separate legal entity in 1940 to allow tax-exempt
contributions that were prevented by lobbying and other activities
in which the NAACP was involved. The organizations were, for all
practical purposes, synonymous. This arrangement continued until
the mid-1950s, when pressure from the Internal Revenue Service
forced the organizations to sever all connections.
Jack Greenberg joined the Legal Defense and Educational Fund,
or LDF, in 1949, not long after he graduated from Columbia Law
School. He succeeded Thurgood Marshall as Director-Counsel in 1961,
after Marshall was nominated to serve as a circuit judge for the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. While he was still in
his twenties, Greenberg handled the trials of two of the five cases
that are now remembered collectively as Brown vs. Board of
Education. He later argued one of those cases in the Supreme Court.
Because Greenberg was directly involved in these historic events,
his book contains an insider's account of the Brown litigation. It
also includes an illuminating discussion of the long and
frustrating efforts to implement the desegregation decree in the
face of the policy of "massive resistance" that the segregationist
Readers unfamiliar with civil rights history will marvel at how
a small group of underfunded lawyers prevailed against those forces
of the legal establishment that were arrayed against them. …