Esther Swirk Brown wasn’t the Brown for whom the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating schools is named — but she is the Jewish woman who helped find Oliver Brown, no relation, to be the lead plaintiff in the historic case.
As a young woman in Kansas, Esther Brown was horrified by the conditions of the school that black children, including the children of her housekeeper, were forced to attend. The one-room schoolhouse in South Park had dilapidated walls and missing light bulbs.
"She went to a school board meeting to press for equal education and was told to go home and mind her own business," said Miriam Katz, who impersonates Brown as part of a one-woman show honoring historic American women that is touring the Midwest.
Instead, Esther Brown stopped black children from attending the school, choosing to home school them in her own house and getting friends to serve as other teachers.
When she took her fight statewide to the capital in Topeka, she met Linda Brown, a young girl, and raised money so that Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, could sue the city’s board of education.
"She just wanted rights for everybody," Katz said. "Maybe she felt like she had to make things right."
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed the face of the civil rights fight, Jews are noting the historic role their community played in pushing the movement forward.
"It was disproportionately black and Jewish lawyers that were fighting the civil rights cases," said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Charles Black, a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued Brown, used to joke that he was the only non-Jewish name on many of the briefs in that case.
Several Jewish groups are marking the anniversary and the Jewish community’s participation in the landmark case.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has created a six-part educational program for schools on Brown’s legacy, including a section on key alliances, which tells the story of Esther Brown.
At its annual Washington meeting last week, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) showcased a video about the group’s role in the civil rights movement. It featured several television advertisements the AJCommittee funded to promote tolerance.
A predominantly liberal community, Jews felt empathy for the plight of black Americans.
"In the fight for the rights of African Americans, Jews were also in a fight for the rights of all minorities in America," Saperstein said. "There was implicit recognition that Jews wouldn’t be safe in America until they created a country with no room for discrimination."
Jewish organizations lent their names to the civil rights cause, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs and funding some of the legal efforts. In fact, the AJCommittee funded research by Kenneth Clark on the effects of prejudice and discrimination on personality development that Chief Justice Earl Warren cited in his unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down on May 17, 1954.
Many individual Jews, like Esther Brown, were part of the effort as well — perhaps none more than Jack Greenberg. As an associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg was one of several who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. He later succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the fund’s director and counsel for more than 20 years.
"Being Jewish can lead you in any direction," said Greenberg, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Law. Greenberg said he wasn’t driven by his religion but more by his upbringing in the socialist Zionist movement of Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe.
"We were social activists," he said. "Back then, we’d call them socialists; now you’d call them liberals."
Several other Jews who aided the NAACP went on to distinguished legal careers, including Judge Jack Weinstein of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn and Judge Louis Pollack of the U.S. District Court for the East District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
But, Greenberg said, not all Jews were "on the good side."
"Some of the lawyers in the South who led the opposition were Jewish," he said.
The Brown case led to a partnership between blacks and Jews that helped herald the civil rights era.
"It was a landmark in what the relationship could achieve," Saperstein said. It led to the drafting of civil rights legislation.
"This really did prove to them that they could use the political legal system to achieve integration and stop legal discrimination in America," he said.
But blacks and Jews have not enjoyed an entire half-century of friendship. Most significantly, many Jewish organizations broke with black groups in 1978, coming out against the affirmative-action policies for which many blacks were fighting.
The ADL’s leader at the time, Nathan Perlmutter, was one of the leading spokesmen against race-based criteria for admission to colleges and universities. Leaders of Jewish groups said the rejection of quotas for affirmative action came largely in light of numerical limits on Jewish enrollment in European and American universities in the 1920s.
Even last year, when the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies came to the Supreme Court, the Jewish community was split. The ADL opposed Michigan’s standard of giving minority applicants 20 extra points on a 100-point admission-scoring scale, while the AJCommittee reversed course from 1978 and backed Michigan.
The court ruled last June that affirmative-action programs are legal but struck down the point system Michigan used for undergraduate admissions.
More recently, black and Jewish groups have sparred over policy priorities, each seeking more support than the other for key legislative agenda items. In addition, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments by some blacks have fueled tensions.
The black community was angered by Jewish groups’ call for a boycott of the 2001 United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, because of the conference’s vehement anti-Israel rhetoric.
But black and other non-Jewish groups chose to back the Jewish community last month when it worked to minimize European anti-Semitism at a conference in Berlin.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joined Jewish leaders in Germany, providing information to European states on tools to combat discrimination.