Significance: One of the leading civil rights attorneys in the post-World War II (1941-1945) period, Greenberg took on countless cases, many before the Supreme Court, aimed at breaking down legalized racial segregation in the United States.
The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Greenberg grew up in New York City. After graduation from Columbia University and a tour in the Navy (including participation in the Iwo Jima landing), Greenberg entered Columbia Law School. While there, he developed his lifelong interest in civil rights law and began his long and productive career with the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Greenberg first worked under his friend Thurgood Marshall from 1949 until 1961, then took over when Marshall was appointed judge of an appeals court, staying with the LDF until 1984. He regularly entered southern courtrooms, battling to overturn the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Greenberg also appeared before the Supreme Court dozens of times to argue against race discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment. His most important work, however, was to dismantle segregation in the U.S. educational system, first in higher education and eventually throughout the system. He played a significant role in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In addition, Greenberg was instrumental in the temporary abolition of the death penalty, arguing that it was used disproportionately against African Americans. In 1984 he left the LDF to teach at the Columbia Law School and five years later was named dean of Columbia College. He has written three books and numerous journal articles on law, social change, and civil rights.