Arthur Goldberg: Proof of the American Dream

By Shils, Edward B. | Monthly Labor Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Arthur Goldberg: Proof of the American Dream


Shils, Edward B., Monthly Labor Review


Throughout his career as lawyer, labor leader, soldier, jurist, and ambassador, Goldberg was ever devoted to serving the American people and the Nation

On December 12, 1995, Arthur J. Goldberg, President John F. Kennedy's first Secretary of Labor and principal architect of the 1955 AFL-CIO merger, became the 19th American to be inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor's Hall of Fame. Goldberg passed away on January 19, 1990, at the age of 82. He had been born August 8,1908, into a blue-collar neighborhood on the west side of Chicago--an area described by a distinguished Goldberg biographer, David L. Stebenne, professor of history at Ohio State University, as "a neighborhood, like other urban slums [replete with] more than a little social unrest, which found expression in radical politics." As we will see, Goldberg's early experiences in such an environment instilled in him a talent for peacemaking and a true sympathy for the working man, which found expression in a lifetime of public service.

The early years

Goldberg's father, Joseph, was an educated man who had been a town clerk in the Ukraine. Seeking refuge from the anti-Semitic pogroms of his homeland, he fled his village, northeast of Kiev, and embarked for the New World. He journeyed through such then-exotic places as Alaska and California, and wound up in Texas in 1890. Stebenne tells us that Joseph then demonstrated the true pioneer spirit by driving a horse and wagon to Chicago. There, he found that the only job available him, educated man though he was, was that of a peddler or produce deliverer. Even so, as soon as he could earn enough money, he sent for his wife, Rebecca, and daughter, Mary.

Arthur was youngest of 11 children who would be born to this immigrant family of the Chicago ghettoes. He was the only one of the siblings destined to graduate high school or college. Goldberg had a rough trail to follow to reach the heights he finally achieved. His father died when he was only 8 years old, and he worked in all sorts of low-paying jobs while in elementary and high school. These included working in a fish market, working as a shoe salesman, and also being a vendor at Wrigley Field. One of his favorite jobs was as a part-time library clerk. In 1924, he graduated from high school at the age of 16, with a distinguished record.

But school was not the only instructional arena for young Goldberg. In his book, Stebenne reminds us that Goldberg loved to reminisce about the neighborhood in which he grew up, with its frequent strikes by workers, a thriving left-wing press, crime, political corruption, and racial and ethnic conflicts between the earlier and later immigrant families. In Goldberg, the tensions of the ghetto would contribute to the development of a man whose watchwords were conciliation, tolerance, and public service.

College and law school. Encouraged by the achievements of such American Jews as Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo, the highly motivated Goldberg, early in his life, doubtless must have considered a career in law. After high school, he embarked on the route to a college education by first securing a scholarship to Crane Junior College. Despite his almost full-time work schedule, in 1926, he was able transfer to Northwestern University on a scholarship, graduating a year later at the age of 19. It seems he felt he had no time to lose.

Goldberg then received a scholarship to Northwestern University law school, and was on his way to his chosen career. While in law school, he survived by performing hard labor on a part-time basis in the construction industry. A first step in his long-time association with unions was taken when he joined a construction union. Despite working almost day and night, Goldberg graduated from law school in 2 1/2 years--with honors and as Editor-in-Chief of the Illinois Law Review. Because he was only 21 years old, he had a problem being admitted to the Bar (because of an underage rule), but he ultimately found his way around this restriction: he sued the Illinois Law Bar Association, arguing his own case, and was then admitted to the Bar by court order. …

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