Desegregating Europe: Remembering Jack Greenberg

By Bernard Rorke

Jack Greenberg’s profound legacy and life-long commitment to civil rights was celebrated in sadness in a string of obituaries that followed the news of his passing on 12 October 2016 at the age of 91. As the New York Times put it, Jack Greenberg helped achieve through the courts what the political system had denied Southern blacks: “voting rights, equal pay for equal work, impartial juries, equal access to medical care, equal access to schools and other benefits of citizenship broadly enjoyed by whites.”

What was perhaps less well known was his commitment to Roma rights and his campaigning to end school segregation of Romani children in Central and Eastern Europe. His engagement with this issue over the last decade was an inspiration to the many Roma rights activists he encountered, who viewed him with respect and affection.

Jack Greenberg (left), seated next to Sen. Ted Kennedy and the Rev. M. Moran Weston in 1969. (Photo: Tony Camerano /AP)

Open Society’s Roma Participation Program, together with the Public Interest Law Initiative and the ERRC, first invited Mr. Greenberg to Hungary and Bulgaria to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 2004. As the last surviving attorney that argued the cases that led to Brown, he was an inspiration to Roma rights activists who were laying the ground for legal and grassroots challenges to school segregation in Europe.

In an interview with NPR, Greenberg gave some idea of how high the stakes were back then in 1950s America:

“We felt that if we lost, it would be a catastrophe, that segregation would be embedded into American life for a long, long time, a generation at least, maybe several generations. We had no idea of what would happen if we won. We knew that it would be better. We knew there would be some integration. We knew it would be a long struggle.”

The stakes were high for the plaintiffs who endured serious harassment; Greenberg recalled families in South Carolina had their homes burnt down, credit cut off, and their lives threatened. He was unaware of any personal danger until after he got his FBI files many years later: “There were various white supremacist groups talking about killing, quote, ‘Jew Jack Greenberg’ but they never got around to it I guess.”

The spectrum of arguments used in Brown strongly resonated with those deployed by Roma rights activists a half-century later in Europe. As Greenberg recalled, “We argued first that the most primitive level that black schools were inferior to white schools in their physical facilities. The black schools were often tarpaper shacks and had hand-me-down books and outhouses, and this was quite common throughout the South. And so because the schools were unequal, black kids had to be admitted to the white schools.”

The conditions in Romani ghetto schools in Bulgaria 50 years later were very similar. Former ERRC Director Dimitrina Petrova visited many such schools, and described one typical school in Kyustendil as a cold dirty horrible place, run down with peeling paint and broken furniture:

“The only sink, in the corridor of the first floor, had only ice-cold water. The toilets were clogged and overflowing. There were neither toilet bins nor toilet paper. Actually, only a small portion of the pupils enrolled in the school studied in this bleak but at least solid building. The majority were accommodated in additional thin-walled, shanty-like ‘temporary’ structures made of a type of cardboard and situated in what should be the schoolyard, where heating was also by small coal-burning stoves whose maintenance is messy and unhygienic.”

It was abundantly clear to all but the most obtuse, that the reality for Romani children was that separate could never be equal.

The argument that ended up being cited by the US Supreme Court was that “because segregation stigmatized black children and interfered with their ability to learn and to develop relationships, which were important in the educational process and in life, segregation was per se an inequality.”

Similarly Roma rights advocates argued that segregated schooling causes irreparable damage, stigmatizes and isolates Romani children from their non-Roma peers, and deprives them of any opportunity to gain the qualifications needed to get good jobs and break the cycles of social exclusion and extreme poverty that bedeviled so many Roma communities.

Jack Greenberg dedicated much effort in the years that followed his first visit to uncover the reality of school segregation in the region. His support was important, not least because of the opposition mounted by a wide array of educational lobby groups. As Dimitrina Petrova maintained, for years these experts had failed to challenge the status quo of racial segregation, and had secured significant amounts of funding for all kinds of educational programs for Roma that, “citing the complexity of issues surrounding the education of Romani children, advocated a ‘comprehensive approach’ involving everything other than desegregation.”

A guarded optimism was evident in Jack Greenberg’s reflections on his first visits, at a time when schools in six cities in Bulgaria had integrated 2,400 Romani kids into mainstream schools, in an NGO-driven process he described as “smooth and successful at its beginning and showing no indication of replicating the American South’s response to Brown.” In Hungary he met with Viktoria Mohacsi, who had just been appointed Commissioner for Integration of Roma and Disadvantaged Children heading a governmental program to desegregate the country’s schools.

The prospect of EU Accession across the region, and the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005, created the fleeting illusion of a political momentum for change. Without a broad-based civil rights movement to sustain the momentum, this illusion soon dissipated in a mess of wretchedly poor governance and endemic institutional corruption, compounded by economic crises, democratic backsliding, and the electoral successes of far-right parties pedaling anti-Gypsyism.  

What has changed is that school segregation of Romani children is no longer an issue concerning a few rights groups and litigators in a handful of marginal towns and cities. The efforts to litigate against school discrimination that Jack Greenberg first observed, subsequently turned into victories in the European Court of Human Rights. These judgments paved the way for school desegregation to be the defining priority of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. These courtroom victories shifted the ground so that governments’ excuses to justify denying Romani children access to quality integrated education came to be exposed as morally tainted cant. School desegregation is now championed by the Council of Europe, UN bodies and EU institutions; with the Commission’s resolve manifest in infringement proceedings taken against three EU member states over discrimination against Roma in education.

While the lack of tangible progress on the ground remains a source of frustration, it is instructive to recall the situation in the US post-Brown. As Jack Greenberg recalled, “No one, however, anticipated the intensity of the opposition. Civil rights litigation had until then produced many paper victories … We won Brown. But almost nothing happened with schools. The South threw up a wall of massive resistance.” It was only in 1969, following Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, that school desegregation began in earnest.” The significance of Brown, though not immediately apparent, was that it set a standard of right conduct:

“As the brief for the United States on implementation stated, ‘The right of children not to be segregated because of race or color is not a technical legal right of little significance or value. It is a fundamental human right, supported by considerations of morality as well as law.’”

As Jack Greenberg made clear, the goal of Brown was far more than school integration: “It was essentially to break up the entire racist system which rested on segregation.” In Europe the goal remains the same, and at any given moment what cannot be achieved through politics is pursued strategically through the courts. For Romani children, there is now growing recognition that the right not to be segregated is, as Jack Greenberg put it, “a fundamental human right, supported by considerations of morality as well as law.” The struggle continues for that right to become a reality for hundreds of thousands of Romani children across Europe, and in this struggle we remain indebted to Jack Greenberg for his contribution, and the ERRC extends its sincere condolences to his family.

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