Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe lit up the screen on Oct. 20 at a showing of the film Mississippi Burning at Fordham’s McNally Amphitheatre, but it was Jack Greenberg who was the real star that night.
Greenberg, who was instrumental in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, was part of a panel of experts who reflected on the civil rights era depicted in Mississippi Burning.
The screening was the third film in the weeklong Fordham Law Film Festival. In addition to Thane Rosenbaum, the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law and director of the Forum on Law, Culture and Society, the panel also featured:
• Shelia Foster, the Albert. A Walsh Professor of Law, associate dean for academic affairs and co-director of the Stein Center for Law and Ethics.
• Robin A. Lenhardt, associate professor of law.
An hour-long discussion followed the movie, which was loosely based on the FBI’s investigation in 1964 of three murdered civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss. The panelists focused on the mood of the country during what was known as the “Freedom Summer,” as well as how far the United States has progressed since that time.
Greenberg noted that while the incident took place a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the murders struck a chord in American culture.
“There were two whites and a black, two northerners and a southerner fighting for the right to vote; a murder, and the Klan was involved,” he said. “If you wanted to assemble a cast and pick out the villains and the heroes of the civil rights movement and you had to select some particular individuals, you very well might have found them there.”
Fordham Law dean William M. Treanor presented with the school’s highest honor, the Medal of Achievement, to Greenberg earlier that day.
Foster noted that she has taught a course called “The Road to Brown,” which details the strategy that led to the end of laws allowing separate elementary schools for blacks and whites.
“As a school child and in college, I saw the films about the great civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston and Jack Greenberg. So it’s incredible for me to be sitting next to him now,” Foster said.
Referencing a scene in which Dafoe and Hackman witness segregated restaurant seating—and how unthinkable that is now—Lenhardt noted that there’s still much more civil rights work to be done. He cited a statistic that black men in Harlem currently have a life expectancy on par with men in Bangladesh.
“It means a lot, too, to think about Brown not so much for what it’s done, but what it can be in the future,” she said. “Looking at these young people, it’s important to remember that Jack Greenberg decided to do this work at a time when it was not cool. It’s a real communication to those of you who are out there to work in this area.”
“It may not have been cool, but it was really fun,” Greenberg quipped, to laughter from the audience.
The Fordham Law Film Festival, now in its fourth year, opened on Oct. 16 with a screening of the documentary Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech. In addition to screenings of Anatomy of a Murder, The War of the Roses and Sleepers, the festival featured Erin Brockovich, who sat down with Treanor after a showing of the eponymous 2000 movie about her life.