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Interview with Jack Greenberg and Gilbert Holmes

Jack Greenberg was 27 years old when he helped argue the Brownvs. Board of Education cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He succeededThurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he workedfor more than 30 years. He is a professor of law at Columbia University.His memoir, Crusaders in the Courts, was published in a new edition thismonth.

Gilbert Holmes, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, isa graduate of the New York University School of Law. He has served on thelaw faculties of Texas Wesleyan University, Southern Methodist and SetonHall.

At the invitation of The Sun, Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Holmes met May 12,2004, just days before the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board ofEducation decision, to discuss its legacy.

The transcript begins with an interview with Mr. Greenberg, then DeanHolmes joins the conversation. The interviewer is Sun reporter M. DionThompson.

Mr. Greenberg: "Brown was filed as a case to integrate schools, and for along while it didn't do that simply because of massive resistance. You hadabout a hundred congressman and senators denouncing the Supreme Court, andall kinds of other resistance. You had violence. There were economicsanctions against people ...Then it went into decline...I don't thinkanybody thought it would follow that trajectory. But at the same time agreat many things happened that we had not foreseen.

"Brown was a catalyst for the creation of the Civil Rights movement.It didn't do it all by itself, but there's no better evidence of that than(that) the first Freedom Ride was scheduled to end in New Orleans on May17. The Freedom Riders were essentially paying homage to Brown. And youtalk to Civil Rights demonstrators and, yeah, they had Brown in mind. RosaParks was an official of the NAACP and they drank and breathed Brown. Butmore important, the Montgomery bus boycott came to a successful conclusionwhen the Legal Defense Fund, our office, filed a law suit to enjoin theenforcement of the Montgomery segregation laws. We won that case. And theentire Supreme Court opinion consisted of quote, Brown vs. Board ofEducation, unquote. ?

"Brown was the catalyst to the Civil Rights Movement, and out of themovement came the Civil Rights Act, which changed everything. Publicaccommodations integrated almost immediately. Voting took a little longer.But we went from a situation where black voting in the South, in the areaswhere black population was greatest, was 2 percent to 8 percent, and nowwe have 39 black congressmen and the mayor of many a large city is black.So, it would be crazy to say Brown did it, but on the other hand, itwouldn't have happened without Brown. People who disagree with that arealways going to disagree.

"I always view Brown as a school case, and I also view it as acatalyst to the Movement, the Civil Rights Act and so forth. But I neverreally had a full appreciation for what it meant to American socialpolitics until last year, last summer, when I went to Eastern Europe andparticipated in a discussion of the integration of Roma gypsies into thepublic schools in Eastern Europe. They were highly segregated. ? I was justso astonished. I went to Bulgaria to see what was happening in terms of theintegration of schools.

"The cases that led up to Brown came out of a campaign that was ledby Charles Houston, based on a study that he had been done by NathanMargold. And, the Margold Report considered this very question ? and thiswas in the late 1920s, the early 30s: Should we go to equalize schools, orshould we go to integrate? And he did a study of what would happen.

"The law was separate but equal, and what he found to no surprise isthat it was not equal, it was not even remotely approaching equal.

"And, so Houston considered: Should we file some cases to equalizethe schools? He didn't have to file a case to establish the principle thatthey should be equal, because the principle was there. You had to filecases to really make them do it. And he said, 'Well, we have enough moneyto file about seven cases, maybe not enough money to file 70 cases. And hesaid maybe we would win a lot of them, but then would be the problem ofactually wringing the money out of the school districts. The court does notprint money. You've got to get it from the legislature. And he thought youwould have a hard time doing that. Well, that was an absolutely validperception.

"The next point is, even if you did get the funding, that isnot what black kids need. To go to school in a segregated environment is,sometimes, maybe unavoidable. Now, in particular because of residentialsegregation, it is widely unavoidable, but all the evidence shows that anintegrated education is superior to a segregated one, the grades and thescores, but even more than that, the social networking that comes out of anintegrated education.

"That is not to say you can't have an absolutely first-rateall-black school. There are a few such examples, but I think the termpeople use is 'can you bring that to scale?' Is that something you can haveas a nationwide thing? In a particular school with highly dedicatedteachers, those aren't aberrations, but can you sustain that on a nationalbasis?"

Interviewer: "You mention earlier that one thing you all weresurprised at was the arc of integration, where you have zero, then you havea peak in the early '80s, then tailing back off. Surprised because youthought it would be a continual upswing."

Mr. Greenberg: "Well, I want to tell you, we were like, five lawyers,with maybe a couple dozen people we worked with on an ad hoc basis. Weweren't sitting around trying to predict the future. We were doing the bestwe can with the circumstances. So, if somebody said to one of us at thattime, what do you think is going to happen? ? Nobody anticipated the CivilRights Act would be passed. Nobody anticipated then there would be TitleVI. If somebody said, 'What do you think will happen?' I would have said:The same thing would happen that happened on the university level. Inretrospect I would have thought that the elementary and high schools wouldhave moved along like the universities, a little bit at a time ? thedifference being that parents of elementary and high schools are tied to aplace of residence, and parents of university students are not. You havepeople coming from all over to go to a university. But tied to a residence,then you're tied into residential segregation, the whole city-suburb."

Interviewer: "So, you think integration would have been moreincremental, more gradual."¶

Mr. Greenberg: "Yeah, and by gradual, I mean very gradual. I don'tthink you can do it all, just because of the residential segregation. Idon't see it. Now, the small towns and the rural areas of the country arepretty well integrated because they don't have dense, wide, dense areas ofall black and all white.

"Since Brown, it's all moved off into the political sphere. You're notgoing to get a court decision saying what you're going to do, you're goingto get the Congress, or the state legislature, or the City Councildeciding. It's not the same thing with this whole gay marriage thing: Thecourt decided it, now it's all up to the legislatures.

"One of things that's clear: There was not a place in the South wherea black could get a Ph.D. There was one black medical school. There wereno black law schools: Now there are 10,000 black law students. Ole Miss isnow well integrated.

"It transformed the particular values of the country. It gave riseto equal rights for women, gays, Hispanics, elderly people, handicappedpeople. The whole notion of equality has become pervasive. It transformedthe status of black people."

Mr. Holmes: "Certainly it opened the doors. I liked what you said. Itopened the doors to people thinking about equality in ways that they reallyhadn't thought of before, and all the different movements that have sort ofspun off it. It certainly opened the door for opportunity. People dreamtabout opportunities, but they weren't able to manifest them. I think of mybeing dean of a law school as the offshoot of Brown.

"The other side of the legacy is that it also demonstrated howdeep-seated some of the racial animus in the country was in terms of thereaction to Brown."

Mr. Greenberg: "Oh, yeah, the massive resistance."

Mr. Holmes: "The massive resistance. And I wouldn't say Brown set thestage, but a lot of that resistance did manifest itself with the riots ofthe '60s and the flight from the urban centers."

Mr. Greenberg: "Well you had the riots before the '60s, in the '60sand in the '90s. And there was racial animus before Brown, during Brown andafter Brown."

Interviewer: "Was anyone surprised by the massive resistance, by theSouthern senators and congressmen?"

Mr. Greenberg: "I was not surprised that the Southern states wereopposed to integration, but I was surprised by the violence."

Mr. Holmes: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that it wouldhave been that fierce."

Mr. Greenberg: "They got up and they argued in the Brown case thatblacks were inferior, that blacks were diseased, whites wouldn't go toschool with them, and things like that. The lawyer from one state said tothe court: 'I can tell you that we're never going to send our children toschool with black kids.' And (Chief Justice) Warren said, 'I want you totell me you'll make an honest effort to integrate the schools.' And hesaid, 'Keep honest out of it.' That's a quote. (laughter) And Warren said,'No. Put it back in.' You knew there would be resistance, but I didn'tthink there would be things like Little Rock, or Meredith."

(Note to readers, regarding Meredith: In 1962, African-American JamesMeredith arrived to register at the University of Mississippi. A hostilecrowd massed and then rioted; two people died, hundreds were injured. In1966, as Meredith led a Civil Rights march, he was shot and wounded.)

Mr. Holmes: "Or even things like Boston."

Mr. Greenberg: "But you can't change the role of racism. It'sunfortunate , but you can't."

Interviewer: "Success was in creating this level of opportunity,this conciousness of racial equality and opportunity that heretofore wasn'tpresent in society?"

Mr. Greenberg: "No, not at all."

Mr. Holmes: "Like I said, the dreams were there, but themanifestations, the manifestations were limited, they were all blocked. Soyou could say it uncapped the dreams. Would you agree with that Jack, thatit uncapped the dreams?"

Mr. Greenberg: "Oh, yeah. It made things possible. A lot happened.Remember: A black person couldn't get a Ph.D. in the South before 1954."

Interviewer: "Talk about resegregation for a moment."

Mr. Holmes: "I mention the flight issue because what happens in thecities is that the middle class, predominantly white, and black as well,leave the city and that is what creates the level of segregation in thecities that we have, which is as much economically based as racially based,but has its origins in the lack of opportunity that has been around in thiscountry for centuries, for a very long time."

Interviewer: "And the criticism that Brown's advocates suffered fromnaivete?"

Mr. Greenberg: "People didn't really expect all the opposition, anddidn't even really think about what constituted integration. Marshalltalked about just getting the black kids to go to the white schools. Andwhen you stop to think about that, that was not integration ? People neverreally thought about a lot of that. People say, 'what do you think aboutit, what do you think?' Then you come up with the right answer. But youdidn't ask the question. We just wanted to get rid of segregation."

Mr. Holmes: "(It was) naivete, to think it would be a panacea. Ithink that kind of naivete is good. I don't take it as a criticism becausethere was an optimism to it, there was a hope to it. We often want todowngrade naivete. It's not a bad thing."

Interviewer: "Where do you think we'll be 50 years from now?"

Mr. Holmes: "Maybe we ought to count 25, since that's what Justice(Sandra Day) O'Connor said." (Note to readers: "We expect that 25 yearsfrom now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary tofurther the interest approved today," Justice O'Connor said in 2003as she announced the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision affirming the University of Michigan Law School's stance that racial diversity is necessary atinstitutions of higher learning. )"

Mr. Greenberg: "I think it was 25 years since Bakke."

Mr. Holmes: "That's right 25 years from Brown to Bakke. Bakke tonow."

Interviewer: "So, what do you see on the horizon?"

Mr. Greenberg: "Well, I don't know. One thing that has developed is alarge, substantial, effective and prosperous black middle class. That neverexisted before. You had the doctor and the lawyer and the undertaker. Thelawyers that I knew weren't very prosperous. You had the newspaperpublishers like in Baltimore, Carl Murphy. You had the Mitchell family, butthat was about it. Now you have quite a substantial black middle class andyou've got to balance that off with the unemployed and the low income andthe low wealth.

"And my favorite statistic -- it's not my favorite because I like it,it's my favorite because it's just so striking: A black man in Harlem hasthe life expectancy of a man in Bangladesh. So, that's the downside.

" The upside is that you do have a large number who are going tocollege and universities and this vibrant middle class."

Mr. Holmes: "I agree that there is definitely a vibrant and growingmiddle class, and the black middle class as a group I think still hasn'tfigured out how to use the power that it has garnered, the monetary power,the voting power and the like. We still haven't figured that one out, yet.So, 50 years from now, maybe we will have figured that out so that middleclass can become a real force for addressing the issues of the lower-incomeblack community. But that to me is the challenge."

Mr. Greenberg: "But that assumes that it's going to want to addressthe challenges of the lower class."

Mr. Holmes: "Well I think that to some extent, it may even becomenecessary...the situation with the lower-income black community is suchthat, like it or not, it reflects on all of the black community. So thatthe black middle class has a self-interest, although I don't think we haveeven looked at that. So 50 years from now, it's economics, it's employment.It's much more of those issues, opportunities, to avoid people going intothe drug trade and down other paths. And that to me is a bigger challengebecause it's harder to identify what to do about it."

Mr. Greenberg: "That's right."

Copyright: The Sun, May 2004

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