by: Marceline Donaldson
I read this morning of the death of Jack Greenberg and it hit me much harder than I would have expected.
Jack Greenberg, Percy Julian, Dolores Orey and so many others are among the people who surrounded me at a very dire time of my life. I am so grateful for the fact that they lived and loved and shared and were there. I am grateful for the way they lived their lives. I am grateful for the way they gave to society to stand between the oppressed and the oppressors with the law as their weapon.
Reading about Jack Greenberg’s death feels to me as though an era has passed.
As a very young girl, who lived in a middle-class Black community surrounded by people who made her feel that she was really incredible and could do anything she set her mind to – it was a recipe for constant conflict with a racist, sexist society and its institutions throughout the rest of my life.
Living in a society which did all it could to teach me that I was inferior; my hair wasn’t good enough; my skin wasn’t white enough; my brain wasn’t intelligent was defective and inferior; my birth and life’s goal should be to walk steps behind, to serve Whites, to not be pushy and absolutely to not rock the boat. Given the lessons this society tried to teach me, the way of this country should be the way it was then and my job and life should be lived not challenging, not noticing the differences in treatment, accepting whatever this society forced on me and doing it without complaint. The same lessons – but in a different era – which were given to the slaves were also given to Blacks not in slavery, but fighting for their civil rights. Those that fought back and tried to escape were crazy and somehow emotionally off base, while those who accepted and did everything they could to glorify and serve their masters and mistresses were sane, substantial and who slaves and years later, more contemporary Blacks, should be.
If I did that, it was clear I would be able to live a very nice, quiet life as the wife of a very nice quiet man and have very nice quiet children. Not very well off economically, but comfortable enough for a Black family. If I rocked the boat; challenged the racism and sexism in this society; brought those challenges outside of the community in which I was raised there would be hell to pay.
I used to wonder why the reality of Black history was only taught in Black schools. In White schools, not even the handful of Black children who attended those schools knew much about the oppression; the hell; the violence; the protests, revolutions, mass deaths that Blacks had gone through over the years. As I grew older and moved out of that Black community, I realized why that was so. If Whites are kept ignorant of Black history – especially the racial oppression and violence perpetrated on Black communities – the denials could be kept, continued and the racism could thrive.
My grandfather, O.C.W. Taylor, was principal of a school in New Orleans, but his love and passion was journalism. He co-founded the Louisiana Weekly with C. C. Dejoie, Jr. and had a television and radio show on WNOE in New Orleans. He was also involved in rocking boats and causing huge waves. When he did all of this, I was right there – at four or five years old, probably younger and very definitely as I grew older.
He brought people to New Orleans through his work – like Thurgood Marshall,- to be a part of panels discussing civil rights. He was also a part of severing the organizational ties between the NAACP and what became the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. I think, but for the efforts of those who were behind that separation, Brown vs the Board of Education would either not have happened or something like it would have happened years later and much diluted in its affects.
My most fun memories of those days was of sitting at the table at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans with all of those men listening to their conversations. I don’t know if I understood it all, but those times certainly formed who I am today and how I have lived my life. Today, I see this little girl at this table with all these men and it is amazing that it is me. Today, as an adult, looking at those pictures on paper and in my minds eye, I see someone very small, looking totally out of place. Then, at the time it happened, my feelings were that I was totally equal to any of them and joined the conversation whenever I had anything to say.
Jack Greenberg was a very young man, at the time, and just becoming involved with this group. It was not an all Black group and that felt very right.
It was normal and good, at the time, the way Blacks and Jews worked together on fighting for the civil rights of everybody. Later – as society began to notice the giant steps taken with this melded group, there began to be efforts and some very successful, to propagandize the Black community to reject its Jewish brothers and sisters and to have only Blacks involved. Everyone had a theory as to why this was necessary. None of those theories acknowledged the strength of that group which wound up at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant and made so many forays into the thick of racism and eventually sexism moving those barriers back a little at a time.
Years later – working for the Pillsbury Company and finding myself in the middle of racism and sexism in Corporate America, all of that came flooding back and I called the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Highly indignant that I was experiencing racism and sexism in a job, especially when I was just out of Harvard Graduate School of Business, I was outraged. Somehow, that was supposed to inoculate me from such experiences. Instead, it showed me the reality of life in these United States for a Black woman. I saw the structures which supported the racism and sexism I was experiencing – their history – where they came from – how they were established and maintained. It was an incredible awakening.
I wasn’t able to reform and remake this society, but before it crushed me, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund took the case of Donaldson v Pillsbury, knowing it would be difficult because it was the first management case filed by a Black woman.
There I met Jack and Deborah Greenberg. Two very committed people. I had met Jack before, but didn’t realize that until my grandfather told me the stories of my youth and identified some of those who peopled my growing up years. Jack and Deborah’s lives were wound up in the LDF and they were very good at what they did. I was not simply a “Plaintiff”. The rest of my life was important to them. They invited me to LDF Yearly Conferences; I attempted to raise money in Minneapolis through a Black and White Ball for LDF and they tolerated that; I spent a lot of time in New York because my life elsewhere was falling apart. The helplessness of what I was experiencing was mitigated by Jack and Deborah and Percy Julian and Dolores Orey having me sit in on the discussions of my case and contributing; listening when my anger went over the top; allowing me to be equal and acknowledging my humanity while it was being destroyed everyplace else. When my car was set afire I called LDF; when people circled my house in a very threatening way and I was alone in the wilds of Wayzata, Minnesota with three small children, I called LDF and Percy came to visit; when all kinds of other things happened during that time frame – I called LDF – and they responded. As I looked at how they operated over the years, what I saw was the person who headed the organization, Jack Greenberg, had a humanity which permeated the entire group.
My grandfather filled in the blanks for me on why Thurgood Marshall looked to Jack Greenberg as his successor at LDF. And from my experience with the group, it made a lot of sense. I didn’t know about Jack Greenberg’s family history with anti-semitism until years later. It was not something he paraded out to justify his work or his involvement in civil rights. And, not everyone with that family background feels called to attempt to address the evils they experienced, but thank God Jack Greenberg did.
Towards the end of my active association with Jack and Deborah Greenberg, Percy Julian, Dolores Orey and others, I was caught up in a group of people who were lobbying to replace Jack Greenberg with an African American because they claimed the organization should have a Black head. It was amazing to me because of the work Jack had done and was doing. What was this about?
As I talked to more people, it became clear that it was about propaganda being inserted to undermine the LDF. There were White propagandist in the midst doing everything they could to convince me and others that our efforts should be placed in achieving this separatist goal. It was very sad. Especially since many of the Blacks involved with this separatist time had done nothing to begin to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. They talked loud and long, but they were contributing and working in the movement to re-establish Jim Crow in the country and this was just one of many places they wanted to see that total separation happen. It was tragic. It was also clear that if they succeeded all the work of Jack Greenberg, Thurgood Marshall and others would be reversed.
I was back and forth to New York about that time and none of those machinations seemed to bother Jack. He just continued with business as usual.
And now, Jack Greenberg, Percy Julian and Dolores Orey have all died. Memories of them and their lives are still very much alive and will always be as long as we value the present by looking to the past and making that a total picture as we move into the future. There isn’t much greater than to know your history as you live your present. Deborah Greenberg moved on to work with others to found the Women’s Legal Defense Fund.
It was a rare time – a painful time – a truly beautiful time – which showed the human spirit in all of its grandeur. When pressed and there are attempts to enslave, oppress, make others less than – there are those who take the other side and spend their lives doing everything they can to remove those pressures and make life better for us all. At the top of that list was Jack Greenberg.
My prayer for Jack is one of giving thanks that he lived and made the decisions he made on how to live his life. Without him and all the others we would all be a little less than we are; a little more oppressed; lacking an incredible example of a life well lived and a life given to very effective service to others.
Rest on your laurels Jack and the knowledge that many remember you and your achievements and your spirit. As you now find Thurgood Marshall again and all of those with whom you worked who have gone before, it will be an awesome reunion and the reward for a job well done.
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