Columbia Law School's Civil Rights Legacy

Special from The Record


When Jack Greenberg signed up for the Legal Survey class at Columbia Law School in 1946, he had no idea that it was the first step on a path that would lead him straight into the history books.


Professor Jack Greenberg Professor Jack Greenberg Photo by Alan Orling

In just six years, the Columbia Law School graduate, just shy of his 28th birthday, would stand before the United States Supreme Court arguing the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. He wasn’t alone—all told, six Columbia Law School graduates and faculty played key roles in that case (including a Supreme Court Justice, class of 1908, who initially voted against the majority but changed his position to make it a 9-0 decision.)


Constance Baker Motley, class of 1946, landed her job when a graduating law school classmate suggested she take over for him as law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I was on the ground floor of the civil rights movement without even knowing it,” Motley told Columbia magazine in a 1994 interview. Motley, who died in 2005, became the first African American woman named to a federal judgeship.


“There’s a long-standing history of Columbia faculty and graduates being intimately engaged in many of the important civil rights movements and issues of the day,” says Ellen Chapnick, dean of social justice initiatives at the law school. She attributes this to the school’s location in New York City and its “strong tradition of linking theory to practice.”


Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley’s list of “firsts” is long: first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate, first woman and first African American to be borough president of Manhattan, and first African American woman named to a federal judgeship.
Photo by Timothy

Former law school dean and former Columbia president Michael Sovern ’55, echoes those thoughts. He says the school is the antithesis of an ivory tower, and how different members of the faculty and students participate has been very much a function of their interests and commitments.” Sovern adds that Columbia “has always been a school in and of the world.”


Such a tradition is especially relevant in February, Black History Month, and indeed this year as the school celebrates its 150th anniversary.


The law school’s efforts in civil rights have roots dating back more than a century—Columbia Law School graduated its first African American student in 1896. In 1923 legendary black actor and activist Paul Robeson graduated from the law school.

Sovern says the school benefits from one especially important attribute: the “Columbia pipeline.”


Such a pipline was started by Prof. Walter Gellhorn, ’31, who taught the legal survey course in the 1940s, and who introduced many of the future civil rights lawyers to their profession. (Actually, it was a civil rights class, but given the anti-communist tenor of the times, calling the class by that name was considered too dangerous.)


Robert L. Carter
Robert L. Carter succeeded Thurgood Marshall as general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1956. He argued and won 21 of 22 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photo by Dustin Ross

It was Gellhorn who introduced Greenberg to Marshall, who needed clerks to write legal briefs. After graduation, Marshall hired Greenberg, and when Greenberg found himself in need of help during
Brown v. Board of Education, he called his classmate Jack B. Weinstein, ’48. Weinstein and Motley wrote the NAACP’s original complaints in the Brown case.


“There was a time when half the lawyers at the [NAACP’s] Legal Defense Fund were Columbia graduates,” recalls Greenberg, who eventually took over from Marshall as head of the fund. Other lawyers included Robert Carter, ’41, Marshall’s chief strategist and lead counsel on the Brown case, and Charles Black, a Columbia law professor who developed arguments and strategy and worked with Motley writing the briefs.


Like Motley, Weinstein also was appointed to a federal judgeship by President Lyndon Johnson.


Other law school graduates who went on to play a major role in civil rights include William Kunstler, ’48, a self-described radical lawyer who defended many a controversial client, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Stokely Carmichael, and who ran the American Civil Liberties Union from 1964 to 1972. 


Another is Michael Ratner, ’66, who heads the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as co-counsel representing the Guantanamo Bay detainees before the Supreme Court. He had not considered becoming a civil rights attorney when he entered the law school, but the tumultuous events of the 1960s and his experiences at Columbia convinced him otherwise. Among his classmates: James Meredith, the first black student to enter the University of Mississippi.  


The current head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Ted Shaw, is a 1979 law school graduate. He recently announced plans to step down from the NAACP.


- Story by Adam Piore


© Columbia University