A Common Purpose

On the occasion of the NAACP’s 100-year anniversary, a look back at how Columbia Law School students and faculty members helped the organization reshape the course of history and bring about positive change for millions.

By Paula Span

Winter 2009

Picture the scene in a dilapidated building at 107 West 43rd Street in the early 1950s. A cadre of lawyers, including law professors and students, has for months been working 15-hour days and longer, without more than an occasional day off. The fatigue is such that one of the younger staffers, Jack Greenberg ’48, traveling home to his family in Brooklyn late one night, falls asleep on the subway, rides past his stop, and awakens in the train yard at the end of the line.

The group toils in “a pretty crummy set of offices—old desks and tables and partitions,” recalls Greenberg’s classmate Jack B. Weinstein ’48, who, at the time, was a recently hired Columbia Law professor that Greenberg had recruited to join the group. “I would characterize it as 1930s bail bondsman décor.” The offices are largely un–air conditioned; the elevator creaks and sometimes stinks of urine.

But the work is electrifying. Here at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the lawyerly arm of the nation’s most important civil rights organization, Thurgood Marshall is leading the campaign to desegregate schools through five Supreme Court cases that collectively come to be known as Brown v. Board of Education. And Columbia-trained lawyers, both black and white, play significant roles. Robert L. Carter ’41 LL.M. serves as Marshall’s deputy and chief strategist. He and Greenberg, along with five others, will argue the cases before the Court in 1952 and 1953. Constance Baker Motley ’46, who joined the effort even before she had graduated, is researching and writing briefs along with Weinstein and his faculty colleague Charles Black.

So begins an extensive and historic association between Columbia Law School and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which this year marks a century of struggle for racial and social justice with a series of centennial celebrations.

“The tentacles spread more widely than one could ever guess,” muses Professor Theodore M. Shaw ’79, “all these individuals, all these relationships, so many connections.” Shaw could serve as Exhibit A: Drawn as a student to the Law School by its reputation for pioneering civil rights involvement, he studied evidence with Weinstein. Shaw also enrolled in a seminar on race and poverty law that Jack Greenberg, by then head of the Legal Defense Fund, was teaching as an adjunct. A few years after his graduation, Shaw joined the Legal Defense Fund, where Greenberg had entered his third decade of leadership. Shaw rose to become director-counsel himself, then, last year, came full circle, returning to the Law School to join Greenberg on the faculty. Now Shaw is the one teaching the race and poverty law seminar. “Jack sort of passed it on to me,” he says.

The NAACP was born in a New York apartment, a response by a handful of activists to the lethal riots that had broken out the previous summer in Springfield, Ill. That was Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, and the new group’s founders chose February 12, 1909, the centennial of the Great Emancipator’s birth, to issue its Call. The eight-paragraph document questioned whether the nation had fulfilled such ideals as “assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution.” It had not, the Call concluded: “If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh, he would be disheartened and discouraged.”

The Legal Defense Fund followed, and though it was separately incorporated in 1940, LDF and its parent initially functioned as intertwined organizations. NAACP board members sat on the Defense Fund board as well; Marshall served simultaneously as the NAACP’s general counsel and as LDF’s first director-counsel. “They were connected at the hip,” Shaw says. Before the Fund moved to West 43rd Street, the groups had shared office space in a midtown building whose directory didn’t even mention LDF as an independent entity.

That changed after the Supreme Court victory. “The southern senators went after us in retaliation for Brown v. Board of Education,” Greenberg explains. They pressured the Internal Revenue Service, which threatened the Legal Defense Fund’s tax-exempt status. Since the law at the time forbade any political lobbying or advocacy by a 501(c)(3) organization like LDF, the groups separated their staff, leadership, and board members.

Yet even as they took steps to disentangle themselves, and for decades afterwards endured some tension, “the NAACP has had a mission that’s entirely consistent with the mission of the Legal Defense Fund,” Shaw says. At one point, the parent unsuccessfully sued its spin-off to prevent it from using the initials NAACP, he recalls. Yet, “the two organizations have worked together often.”

After the split, Robert Carter became Columbia Law School’s connection to the national NAACP organization. A quiet, even shy man, he’d never quite meshed with the more charismatic Thurgood Marshall, despite their dozen years together in the legal trenches. When Marshall sent him to the NAACP to be its general counsel in 1956, Carter was infuriated by what seemed like “obviously a demotion,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir. “While we never said one harsh word directly to each other, my anger and feeling that he had badly used me were no secret . . . .”

Nevertheless, Carter determinedly set about protecting the NAACP from assaults in southern states—wielding, in NAACP v. Alabama, a First Amendment argument he had developed years before in his Columbia Law School master’s thesis. With an expanded NAACP legal staff, he pursued a variety of education and employment discrimination cases and claimed 21 victories in 22 appearances before the Supreme Court. Now about to turn 92, Carter has served as a federal judge in the Southern District of New York since 1972. Among his numerous awards, the one he treasures most is the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which recognizes African-Americans for “acts of distinguished merit and achievement.”

At the Legal Defense Fund, meanwhile, the bonds also intensified. “The staff was heavily Columbia for a long, long time, maybe up to half the people,” says Greenberg, who took the helm at the LDF when Marshall was appointed to the federal bench in 1961, and who kept the pipeline flowing.

Julius Chambers ’64 LL.M., for example, was the LDF’s very first student intern and later succeeded Greenberg as director-counsel. Greenberg also brought aboard his former student Ted Shaw, William Robinson ’66, and, later, Patrick O. Patterson ’72, Judith Browne-Dianis ’92, and Deborah Fins ’92, among others. Bill Lann Lee ’74 put his years with the LDF to use under President Bill Clinton, as the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Lawyers could travel the well-trod path in either direction. James S. Liebman worked on school desegregation, capital punishment, and habeas corpus cases as LDF’s assistant counsel in the 1980s, then became the Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law at Columbia. The association hardly ended with Liebman’s Law School appointment, however; he has arranged for students to assist with briefs for Supreme Court cases he has undertaken, pro bono, for LDF. He has also involved students in a major capital punishment investigation, with the LDF as a partner.

James Meredith ’68 occupies a unique category: He wasn’t an LDF staffer, but one of its most prominent clients. An African-American military veteran attempting to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1961, Meredith’s case generated international headlines. Constance Baker Motley eventually won his admission in an extended court battle; Meredith was nevertheless repeatedly turned away from the university, amid rioting, by the governor of the state. It took Army troops and the National Guard, along with the Justice Department and a proclamation by President Kennedy, to get Meredith registered. His graduation from Ole Miss in 1963 was the most thrilling day in Motley’s career, she later said. And it wasn’t coincidental that when Meredith decided he wanted to study law, he came to Columbia.

In the Fund’s early years, the half-credit Columbia course called Legal Survey, taught by Professor Walter Gellhorn ’31, operated as a kind of incubator, preparing civil rights attorneys for work at LDF and other public interest organizations. Its bland name was deliberate: Gellhorn, who had already been compelled to appear before Congress to swear that he wasn’t a communist, “didn’t want the faculty to know what [the course] was about,” says Greenberg, who took the course for four semesters. “He didn’t lie about it, but he didn’t advertise it. The dean at that time was not very friendly to civil rights.”

That’s an odd, antiquated notion now. Take, for instance, the case of Anurima Bhargava ’02. “Much of the reason I went to Columbia was because of its work in civil rights and human rights law,” says the young lawyer. Bhargava studied civil procedure with Greenberg (“he taught us through his experience litigating LDF cases”) and took Professor Susan Sturm’s yearlong field research seminar on workplace equity.

Joining LDF herself in 2004, Bhargava now directs the organization’s education practice. (Kirsten Clarke ’00 and Jin Hee Lee ’00 are also current LDF lawyers.) “In many of our cases, we work with local chapters of the NAACP, either as our clients or as ties to the community,” Bhargava points out. “NAACP chapters still serve as the eyes and ears of the LDF.”

The connections continue to multiply. Several years ago, as the Law School began contemplating some sort of institute that would “rethink the framework for seeking legal and social justice,” Professor Susan Sturm recalls, she and her colleagues learned that the Legal Defense Fund was considering a similar idea. The resulting Center for Institutional and Social Change, launched in 2007, represents a Columbia Law School and LDF collaboration—an attempt, Sturm says, to answer questions like: “What does racial justice look like in an era when the courts are in retrenchment mode?” and “What does it mean to be a leader for people of color at this historic moment?” About a dozen Law School faculty and 30 students each year have undertaken projects for the center dealing with issues such as higher education, low-wage work, policing, and housing policies.

Dovetailing concern about progress on civil rights issues has also led to such joint events as “Twenty Years after McCleskey v. Kemp,” a 2007 conference co-sponsored by the Law School and LDF to mark what Professor Jeffrey Fagan calls “an unpleasant landmark”—the Supreme Court ruling that racially disparate patterns in applying the death penalty did not violate constitutional prohibitions against racial discrimination. With the conference, which drew about 125 participants, both organizations hoped “to reignite interest in racial bias in capital punishment among legal scholars and civil rights activists,” Fagan says, and to “identify strategies to reduce racially disproportionate treatment of racial minorities in both death penalty cases and throughout the criminal justice system.”

Meanwhile, Columbia Law School students contributed 2,559 hours of pro bono work for the Legal Defense Fund between 1996 and 2007, and Law School students intern there virtually every summer. “It’s one of the more exciting placements,” says Akua Akyea, the director of international and summer programs at the Law School’s Center for Public Interest Law. Students who compete for LDF internships “like that the organization takes on cases that are difficult and new, and require a level of creativity by lawyers that you don’t find in a lot of other organizations,” Akyea says. (Among the lengthening list of Columbia Law School alumni who’ve interned for LDF: Eric Holder ’76, the U.S. attorney general.)

Sometimes, connections between Columbia Law School, the NAACP, and the LDF arise in less straightforward ways. Consider the events of December 1992, when students were protesting Columbia University’s plans to build a biomedical research center on the site of the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. A throng descended on the Hamilton Hall offices of the Columbia College dean—at the time, Law School alumnus Jack Greenberg. Among the protest leaders was a junior named Ben Jealous.

“He chained me into my office!” says Greenberg, still sounding a bit indignant. The protest lasted only a few hours, after which Greenberg emerged, gave the demonstrators “a tongue-lashing,” walked out onto Broadway, and got into a cab. Jealous and three other students were suspended for a semester. Four years passed before he returned to Columbia and completed his political science degree, but Jealous made up for lost time. “He ended up being a Rhodes scholar,” Greenberg notes.

And last summer, Benjamin T. Jealous became the 17th president—and, at 35, the youngest—of the NAACP.

Paula Span is a contributing writer for Washington Post Magazine and teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Photos courtesy of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund