One of the last remaining lions of the Civil Rights Movement said the drive for equality continues today at lecture at the Law School on Friday.
Jack Greenberg, who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 with Thurgood Marshall, spoke to a crowd made up mostly of people a fourth of his age.
Every seat in 250 Hutchins Hall was filled. Overflow attendees stood in the aisles to hear the attorney who argued against school segregation in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Greenberg, a retired Columbia University law professor and former dean of Columbia College, said the drive for equality continues today.
He demonstrated the continuing relevance of the projects that began a generation ago. His message was serious but optimistic, simultaneously veteran and fresh.
In his lecture “Uniting Civil and Human Rights” Greenberg said that since the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement has gone in cycles. There have been moves toward equality followed by periods of regression from that goal.
The event was organized by Human Rights Through Education, a student group at the University.
The United States has retreated from the desegregation that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Greenberg said. Now, he said, “we are in a low spot and declining.”
After beginning with a history of American perspectives on the right to equality, Greenberg distinguished between what he called “basic” or “absolute” human rights, like free speech, voting and due process, and those involving distribution of resources, like access to education, health care and housing.
Greenberg said the federal court system has made decisions that have led toward a return to segregation, influenced by cultural shifts. As an example, he cited the 1974 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, in which the court ruled that school systems couldn’t integrate schools by busing students across district lines.
He said that because the right to equality is moderated by the distribution of resources in society, legal rights cannot be expanded without societal support.
For example, making health care a right rather than a privilege would require a sizable shift in the way resources are allocated, he said.
A member of the audience asked Greenberg how he would justify using public resources to improve the status of society’s have-nots.
“You tell them that they have an interest in a stable and prosperous society,” Greenberg responded. “If a large part of the population is subjugated, disenfranchised and not fully productive, it’s not going to be a successful society.”