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One American – Turning Swords to Plowshares

Posted on Wednesday, December 22, 2021
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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7 Comments
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He was a real fighter in every good meaning of that word. He never looked back, went where needed. His name was Jack Greenberg. We could use more like him, unapologetically idealistic, make-it-happen.

You probably do not know him, few did. He would shuffle the halls, rather rumpled, not vocal, but clear in his thinking – aware of what he was about, the mission. Little got in his way. Because of that, others got shots at success, the American dream. He lived to create opportunity.

Who says one man cannot change the world? This time 97 years ago, in 1924, a child was born to impoverished Jewish parents, by God’s grace in America, land of opportunity. He would turn “swords into plowshares,” convert pain to gain, misery to magnanimity. 

Admitted to Columbia University, his mother’s dream, something magic seemed afoot. She had saved 50 cents a week for decades years, hoping. He enrolled.

But this boy was a patriot, which meant one thing in 1941.  He left college, volunteered to fight, darkest parts of WWII. He deployed to Iwo Jima, then to Okinawa.  

How bad were those battles? At Iwo, in 36 days, America had 26,000 casualties, 6,800 dead.  At Okinawa, in 82 days, 62,000 casualties, 12,000 dead.  People can get Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) just by reading hard-to-process memoirs of those who survived those battles.

By way of illustration, Marine veteran of Okinawa EB Sledge wrote: “With each step toward the distant rattle and rumble of that hellish region where fear and horror tortured us like a cat tormenting a mouse, I experienced greater dread… sickening dread of fear itself and revulsion of the ghastly scenes…”

That was where our rumbled friend served. Sentiments forged in war, love of America’s promise, liberty, equality, revulsion at injustice changed him. He was especially disturbed by racial injustice.

He resumed his studies at Columbia, eventually completing law school. In his 30s, he teamed with a young black lawyer, resolving to fix what was wrong, even as he appreciated what was right. He aimed to bring cases that would “change the world,” and they did.  They were foundation stones – for civil rights.

His most famous was Brown v. Board of Education, 1954. His co-counsel was black, equally resolved to make a difference, a highly successful team. They reversed “separate but equal” idea, delivering Plessy v. Fergusson to history’s ash heap.

White, Jewish, unapologetic for idealism, he was understated, affable, and honest. He would teach at Harvard, then Columbia Law for 50 years, head the NNACP, endlessly creating opportunities.

At Harvard, he endured protests because he was white – teaching civil rights. He was pushed to condemn the outpouring, castigate protestors, make himself the victim. He declined. Pushed on fear, he said, no – Iwo was fear.

At Columbia Law, in 1985, he eyed a wider horizon.  Interested in human rights, he created a human rights fellowship. It was just an experiment to see if global needs might find willing students.

As Wall Street recruiters swarmed, he offered a different option, no pay, good experience, unusual opportunity.  The idea caught. Those selected felt lucky. They saw things hard to conceive, learn.

What these students did was more exposure than impact, but they stepped into unknown worlds, with his credibility beneath their wings.  They delivered hope, affirmed human rights matter to Americans. And they learned.

Some went to the Philippines, others to the Middle East, Africa, UN High Commission on Refugees, rural India to work on equal protection for Harijans, the Untouchables. Some saw Appalachia up close, others inner Detroit, Chicago, and Atlanta.  

What they saw, they never forgot. What he taught by service drew others. Face to the wind, he was a no-apologies advocate for teaching others to advocate, convinced empowerment would lift others.

From Brooklyn to Iwo and Okinawa, back to Brown v. Bd. Of Education, Harvard and Colombia, teaching, litigating, founding that fellowship, he exemplified America’s promise, turned swords to plowshares. He pushed others to reach higher with unbroken hope – because he knew they could.

Reflecting on his approaching birthday – December 22 – one is reminded that we are what we choose to be, grow in proportion to what we give, elevate by taking the gifts a good nation gives and multiplying them. Adversity – seeing it, knowing it, and living it – is not all bad. It provides invaluable perspective.   

Our rumpled friend said “yes” to those who said “no,” “can” to “cannot,” put himself in harm’s way, knowing history is made by those who do.  He did that at Iwo and Okinawa, later arguing Brown, opening doors, then creating doors for others to open.

His co-counsel in Brown became the first of two black justices to sit on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, the second being Clarence Thomas. His fellowship placed 1,500 young Americans around the globe, sent me to India in 1985.  His name is not inscribed in marble, but his legacy is lasting.

He was a real fighter in every good meaning of that word. He never looked back, went where needed. His name was Jack Greenberg. We could use more like him, unapologetically idealistic, make-it-happen.

Jack believed in the American Dream, as did his mother. He represented Martin Luther King, who also did.  He would not be much for excuses, would not counsel violence, would advise using what God gave you – all of us, with no exceptions, as much as you can muster – for others.

Little got in his way, because he believed in big dreams from a young age.  Because he did, others have gotten their chance. And that is America, filled with opportunity and opportunity creators.  Our job is just not to forget, while we breath, we have it in us. He left us in 2016, but Happy Birthday, Jack!

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Mike Kennedy
Mike Kennedy
1 year ago

Wow an amazing man. God Bless and Happy Birthday.

Jan
Jan
1 year ago

Wow, awesome man. Happy Birthday.

Jeanette
Jeanette
1 year ago

Wow ; what a story of an American hero! Thanks for all you did…Happy Birthday to you!

Chuck
Chuck
1 year ago

A builder, not a destroyer. Democrat/Socialist/Communists take note.

meaghan
meaghan
1 year ago

Wow I’m 77 and my dad was born in 1915 and drafted into US Army by 1943 as a Conscientious Objector refused to bear weapons
a non-violence trainer worked as a Medic military hospitals on big trans oceanic US military ships and helped build hospital in Nagasaki after US military Nuked
the hell out of the city and he finally came home May 1946 in hospital pajamas and a maroon robe … lost a lot of weight and had been deathly sick with typhus, yellow jaundice, malaria, hepatitis
.. been all around the globe. Went in as Michigan All Round Athletic Champion and very gifted singer/
musician/poet. I’m sure I remember my dad trying to tell me about this Jack Greenberg and now I know why after all these years… much common ground connections so full of will and grace!!! I LOVE MY DAD WILBUR LOWELL SIMPSON and I LOVE JACK GREENBERG FOREVER! My dad’s Birthday is December 10, 1915 and he passed in 2008 at 95
so it gives me big joy to think of Jack Greenberg and Bill Simpson hanging out in the super heavens
schmoozing and scheming of life beyond war here on Earth. They could be hanging out anywhere up there I know the Enough Cafe Divine Comedy Club and the Intergalactic Library and Performance Center right over the
river by the gorgeous gardens ya know home sweet home they be grooving! my parents told me they prayed for a child that would help unite heaven and peace and earth and put an end to all the immoral,
insane and illegal wars on Earth forever more. I definitely signed up before I was born and been devoted for over 77 years to Peace

Coach T
Coach T
1 year ago

SALUTE Mr. Jack Greenberg! And thank you Mr. Charles for sharing him with us via the written word today. America ???????? is better for real men like Mr. G and others both ladies and gentlemen, all melanin types, differing occupations. A few of my courageous American treasures are Dr Thomas Sowell, Mr Walter Williams, Mrs. Kay Cole James, and many others. His Grace2u ???? (I’m 64)

Richard H Minetti
Richard H Minetti
1 year ago

Great article well documented!!

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