WASHINGTON – Fifty years ago Monday,lawyer Jack Greenberg received a telephone call from Thurgood Marshall who told him the Supreme Court had ruled in their favor in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Greenberg,a lawyer who worked on the case,was at his NAACP office that day and Marshall was in Washington. Although many assumed the justices would not order school desegregation,Greenberg said he always expected to win.
He reminisced about the call and all that followed in conjunction with a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History,“Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education.”
Museum Director Brent Glass joined Greenberg to begin the discussion before an audience of about 70 museum visitors.
“History is not inevitable. History is part of a long process,” he said. “Leadership,legal expertise,and courage led up to the decision. History is about people – the people on the front lines.”
Moderator Julian Bond,National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chairman,said he and Greenberg knew each other not only from their own work,but also because Bond's father worked with Greenberg on the Brown case.
“Brown was more than a school case,” Greenberg said. “What's more important is that Brown not only integrated schools,but society as well.”
The Brown case was made up of segregation cases from five communities: Topeka,Kan.; Clarendon County,S.C.; Farmville,Va.; Wilmington,Del.; and Washington. Greenberg worked primarily on the Topeka case. During that time,he also worked on other cases seeking to end segregation in colleges and in the military.
To prepare for Brown,Greenberg and his fellow lawyers did extensive legal research,held conferences with historians and legal theorists and then did a dry run in which they practiced their argument in front of law professors who acted as Supreme Court judges.
Greenberg said the fight for equality in education continues. In his new book,“Crusaders in the Courts: Legal Battles of the Civil Rights Movement,” Greenberg wrote that 40 of the 50 states have equalization cases in their state supreme courts.
The discussion ended with Robert Moore,one of the protesters arrested at the Woolworth's sit-in in Greensboro,S.C.,which refused to serve black patrons.
A member of the audience,he stood up to thank Greenberg for defending him 44 years ago. Saying it was something he had never had the chance to do,Moore shook Greenberg's hand. Moore said that thanks to Greenberg he “got off the hook” with just a $1,200 fine that someone else paid.
“Separate Is Not Equal” is an exhibit two years in the making. Inspired by co-curator Alonzo Smith,the exhibit includes numerous pictures,the Supreme Court docket book in which the vote was recorded and the dining room table of the Topeka NAACP officer where the Brown case was first discussed.
The exhibit also has pre-1954 mockup classrooms from both a white and black school. In the white classroom,there are individual desks for each student,while in the black classroom,there are plain benches with no writing surfaces. Visitors can sit in either room and watch clips of a silent NAACP film from the 1930s showing black classrooms and data about how they differed from white schools.
“The exhibit is very well put together,” said Jean Wendrow,a Smithsonian volunteer,from Silver Spring,Md.
She and fellow volunteer Carrol Harris toured the exhibit,which opened to the public over the weekend,and said they thought it represented the times well.
“Those were tense times at school,” said Harris,who was a teacher at Kramer Junior High School in Washington when decision was issued. “There were three black teachers and about 10 black students. It was hard.”
The exhibit,sponsored by Morgan Stanley,will remain on view through next May.