A native of Brooklyn, New York, Melvyn Roseman Leventhal began his work in the Mississippi civil rights movement in 1965. While attending New York University Law School, he spent summers in Jackson through the Boston-based Law Students Civil Rights Research Council. Upon graduating in 1967 he set up practice in Jackson and married Alice Walker, an author and fellow activist whom he had met during his summers in Mississippi. Walker referred to Leventhal as “a human rights lawyer who sues a large number of racist institutions a year (and wins).” Their daughter, Rebecca Leventhal (now Rebecca Walker), born in 1969, was known as a “movement child” because of her parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement and because of the promise suggested by such an interracial relationship.
The harshness of the struggle for civil rights and its accompanying violence were very real to Leventhal both inside and outside the courtroom. According to Walker, she and Leventhal were “the only interracial, married, home-owning couple in Mississippi,” and their presence in public life often caused “an angry silence.” Leventhal’s work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was complicated by the anti-Semitism of many Mississippi judges. In his book chronicling the work of the organization’s lawyers, Jack Greenberg recalled that Judge Harold Cox refused to accept legal documents from Leventhal unless he attached A.D. to all dates. However, Cox later confided in Leventhal after sentencing those involved in the 1964 murders of Jewish civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman as well as African American James Chaney, “It’s one thing to beat them up, but another to kill them.”
Leventhal worked for the Legal Defense and Education Fund, which focused on issues of school desegregation to encourage equal educational opportunities for children across Mississippi. Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools in Mississippi remained segregated throughout the 1960s. Predominantly white school boards used tactics such as districting to maintain segregation. In addition, private schools became havens for the children of white Mississippi segregationists. Leventhal fought to assure that such segregated academies did not detract from the quality and funding of public schools. An example was his fight for the integration of the faculties of Coahoma County High School and Coahoma Agricultural High School, where he argued that integration required equal opportunities for teachers as well as students.
Leventhal returned to New York in 1975, and his marriage to Walker ended the following year. He maintained a successful career as a lawyer, serving in the state attorney general’s office as head of the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau and later as assistant attorney general.
- Jack Greenberg, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (1994)
- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (2004)
- Rebecca Walker, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2001)