By Samantha Gallion
Jack Greenberg had been working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 17 years in 1966, when he received repeated requests from Mexican Americans and Native Americans.
“We had a great deal of success with civil rights cases, and people who we ordinarily didn’t represent came to us asking us to represent them,” Greenberg said.
At the time, he was the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which had been established in 1940. He began working with the NAACP Legal Defense fund in 1949, just out of Columbia University Law School, and was named director-counsel in 1961.
By 1966, Greenberg thought it would make sense for the Chicano legal community to mount its own legal defenses. So he contacted one of the leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in San Antonio, Pete Tijerina, and offered to defray his expenses to attend a conference in Chicago. In an interview from 2000, Tijerina said he was unable to attend, but sent attorney Matt Garcia in his place. Garcia returned, convinced that Greenberg could be helpful.
Pete Tijerina and Jack Greenberg spoke by phone. The upshot: Greenberg would help Tijerina and other Mexican American lawyers organize their own legal defense fund, as Greenberg thought it was important for Latino lawyers to represent Latino cases.
“People like to feel that they are in charge of their destinies … not manipulated from the outside,” he said.
In a separate interview in 2000, Tijerina agreed: “It was important to the movement, and to the cause, and to the Mexican American community that we have our own lawyers fight our own cases.”
Tijerina wasn’t a constitutional lawyer, but Greenberg credits him with providing “the spark that got MALDEF under way.”
In working with cases and lawyers in Latino communities, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund noticed the legal defense available was weak in some areas.
“We learned very soon that there were very few Chicano lawyers who had been trained in Constitutional law … or had any experience with civil rights,” Greenberg said. This knowledge is what prompted Greenberg to suggest the formation of a Latino organization.
“I outlined what they would have to do … they would have to get money from foundations and would have to give a credible report on why they needed the money and what they would do with it,” Greenberg said.
He then sent Tijerina and two other Chicano lawyers $500 to travel to New York, and asked officials at the Ford Foundation to meet the three Mexican American lawyers and him for lunch.
“I still recall I thought it would be nice to go to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. We couldn’t find one near my office so we went to an Argentine restaurant, which is hardly the same thing … but was about as close to Mexican food as we could get,” he said with a laugh.
The Ford Foundation liked the idea, but would require a detailed proposal – which required time and expertise to prepare. Greenberg immediately went to a pay phone and called the Field Foundation, “who agreed to give us $6,000 to hire someone to write it,” he said. He hired Mike Finkelstein, who was helping with a statistical analysis of jury discrimination, to do fieldwork and write the report.
Finkelstein’s study of Mexican American lawyers throughout the U.S. provided the necessary groundwork.
“Not a single one of them had a Federal Legal Report in their library, and were deprived and disadvantaged in different ways,” Greenberg said.
Finkelstein proposed creating a five-lawyer office in San Antonio, Texas, which would work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for five years, with Greenberg as a member of the lawyers’ board.
In 1968, the Ford Foundation granted the new Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund two times more than its organizers had requested. MALDEF was given $2.2 million to spend over the next five years on civil rights legal work for Mexican Americans. Of that amount, $250,000 was to go toward scholarships for Mexican American law students.
Established in 1967, in response to the growing number of Latino civil rights cases in the United States, MALDEF emerged as one of the first of its kind.
“We had training sessions for Latino lawyers in Bandera and Lake Tahoe,” said Greenberg, adding that the first sessions hosted by MALDEF, the ones in Bandera, are fondly remembered by participants as “the era of Bandera.”
Latino lawyers learned federal procedure and constitutional law during the “era of Bandera.” But Greenberg and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers also expanded their own horizons. Greenberg, a New York City native, “learned about Chicano Culture, the poverty and oppression that afflicted it, some historic figures … mariachis, margaritas, guacamole and how to ride horseback,” he said.
Tijerina presided over MALDEF, modeled it after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and formed state committees composed of lawyers committed to Mexican American causes. Finally, Latino lawyers were able to represent Latino civil rights cases.
Decades later, MALDEF has tackled everything from school segregation to police brutality to the denial of due process to Chicano-movement participants.
“There were a lot of issues and nobody was addressing them … a lot of people were in oppressive situations … I wasn’t an empire builder. I just wanted to see that something was done,” Greenberg said.
Mr. Greenberg was interviewed in New York, N.Y., on April 26, 2004, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.