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Sixty-five years ago today – on May 17, 1954 – the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This is probably the most important decision of the 20th century. It changed America, and ultimately led to the end of legally mandated racial segregation. In the aftermath of Brown, the Civil Rights movement in the South challenged segregation, ultimately leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to prohibiting racial discrimination, this law also prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodations on the basis of religions. It was an act that protected all Americans from bigotry.
Brown, and a companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe, challenged segregated schools in four states and the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs in these cases were represented by lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. All of Marshall’s colleagues were African-American except Jack Greenberg, a thirty-year-old graduate of Columbia Law School. Greenberg would later succeed Marshall as the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Seven organizations, led by the American Jewish Congress, filed amicus briefs in support of integration. Of the twenty-one lawyers who signed these briefs, at least two thirds were Jews. Among them were Arthur J. Goldberg, who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and Arnold Forster, who would spend his entire life fighting anti-Semitism for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Other Jewish lawyers who signed briefs in the case included Arthur Garfield Hays, Theodore Leskes (who worked for the American Jewish Committee), and Edward J. Lukas. Sanford H. Bolz, an attorney who worked for the American Jewish Congress, signed a brief from the American Council on Human Rights. Joining him was Samuel B. Groner, who grew up in a Yiddish speaking family in Buffalo.
The Court invited the United States Justice Department to file a brief. The Eisenhower administration accepted the invitation. One of the key lawyers for the government was Philip Elman, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Elman’s name appeared immediately after Attorney General Herbert Brownell’s name, indicating Elman’s major role in the case. After law school Elman had been a clerk for Justice Felix Frankfurter and then became assistant solicitor general of the United States. Joining him on the Department of Justice brief was another young Jewish lawyer, Leon Ulman.
All the lawyers in this case were fighting for fundamental equality for all Americans. Their work here, and in many other civil rights cases, reminds us of the admonition of Rabbi Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” —Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14.
This ethic, and the struggle for equality and justice in Brown, reflect the culture of Gratz College and our commitment to equality, education, and Tikkun Olam.