David Ginsburg, Washington lawyer and director of a 1960s panel on race relations, dies at 98

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; B04

David Ginsburg, 98, a pillar of the liberal legal establishment in Washington for seven decades who served as executive director of a national commission that examined U.S. race relations in the 1960s, died May 23 at his home in Alexandria. He had congestive heart failure.

A Harvard-trained lawyer, Mr. Ginsburg arrived in Washington in 1935 and became a prominent figure in New Deal circles. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and was general counsel of the Office of Price Administration, where he hired a young lawyer named Richard Nixon. Along the way, Mr. Ginsburg was recruited to help write speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Ginsburg began his career in private practice and remained actively involved in Democratic politics. In 1947, he helped start Americans for Democratic Action, a political group made up of a range of New Deal liberals, including future vice president Hubert Humphrey, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The organizers wanted to counter the influence of the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace, which they saw as Communist-dominated.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Mr. Ginsburg to serve as executive director of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. The blue-ribbon panel was charged with examining the cause of race riots that had swept through cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

Mr. Ginsburg played a leading role in crafting the commission's final report, which was released in March 1968. It concluded that urban violence was a reaction against white racism, which helped create and sustain impoverished ghettos.

"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," Mr. Ginsburg wrote. The report made recommendations to reverse that trend through neighborhood-building and civil rights initiatives.

The widely read report sparked debate across the country, drawing criticism from a range of leaders. Johnson, reportedly upset that the report did not acknowledge what he had done to help black families, did not respond immediately to its recommendations.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, another wave of riots swept through more than 100 cities.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Mr. Ginsburg was general counsel to the Democratic National Committee. He was also adviser to Humphrey while he was vice president and helped the candidate craft his anti-Vietnam War campaign promises.

After the election, Mr. Ginsburg continued practicing law. He retired in 2007.

Charles David Ginsburg was born in New York City on April 20, 1912. He grew up in Huntington, W.Va., where his Russian-immigrant father established a grocery store. He received a scholarship to West Virginia University, from which he was a 1932 Phi Beta Kappa graduate.

In the years before the Depression, he saw his father's store struggle as customers cut back on spending. "It made me aware that there are people in this country that need help and that somehow the government and we, through the government, have got to find ways to help them," he told National Public Radio at the time of his retirement.

Mr. Ginsburg received a law degree from Harvard University in 1935 and took a position at a private firm in Cincinnati. His Harvard mentor and soon-to-be Supreme Court justice, Felix Frankfurter, persuaded him to defer that job in favor of spending a year in Washington, working for the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission.

After a year, he decided to stay in the District. He clerked for Justice Douglas in 1939 but left the court to serve with the Office of Price Administration when war broke out in Europe. Mr. Ginsburg worked to control inflation until he enlisted in the Army in 1943 in response to accusations that he was dodging the draft.

He initially drove trucks in a supply battalion and then joined the staff of Gen. Lucius Clay, who became the American military governor of Germany after the war. Mr. Ginsburg's work helped shape economic policy in postwar Austria.

Mr. Ginsburg returned to Washington in the late 1940s to establish his law practice. He was general counsel to the Jewish Agency, the predecessor to Israel, and was a key liaison to President Harry S. Truman's administration.

His first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to Ina Ginsburg.

Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Marianne Lais Ginsburg of Alexandria; three children from his second marriage, Jonathan Ginsburg of Fairfax County, Susan Ginsburg of Alexandria and Mark Ginsburg of Paris; and two grandsons.

In 2007, Mr. Ginsburg said he had not lost his idealism. Despite the persistence of poverty and racism, he said he still believed a person could go to Washington and make a difference in the world.

"I think that there is no alternative to government in a democratic society," he said. "It's only when people come together to accomplish something that problems of this sort we're talking about can be dealt with. It takes a nation to act."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company