Friday, October 30, 2009

Jack Pemberton dies, led ACLU in turbulent '60s

Jack Pemberton dies, led ACLU in turbulent '60s

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

John "Jack" Pemberton, who led the American Civil Liberties Union in
the 1960s when it won milestone Supreme Court cases on interracial
marriage, political representation and student free speech, died Oct.
21 at his home in Monte Rio. He was 90.

Mr. Pemberton was the ACLU's national executive director from 1962 to
1970 and spent most of the rest of his career in the Bay Area as a
law professor and regional counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission in San Francisco.

Colleagues said he was instrumental in broadening the ACLU's focus
from traditional civil liberties concerns, such as freedom of speech
and religion, to civil rights during a crucial period in the nation's
racial history.

"He was very influential in expanding the ACLU's horizons beyond
simply individual rights," said William Gould, a Stanford law
professor and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board
who worked with Mr. Pemberton on discrimination cases.

"There were many conflicts about whether we should become involved in
the anti-war movement, in the civil rights movement, and he was able
to move us into all of those areas," said Ramona Ripston, the ACLU's
executive director in Southern California who was its press relations
director in the late 1960s.

Mr. Pemberton opened the ACLU's first office in the South, said his
daughter Nancy Pemberton, a San Francisco attorney. It was a
dangerous mission, as the New York Times Magazine recounted in a 1966
article, which said one of the organization's lawyers had been shot
at from a passing car in rural Mississippi and the chief staff
attorney was beaten while seeking the release of voting rights demonstrators.

Among the civil liberties group's legal victories during Mr.
Pemberton's tenure was the 1967 Supreme Court ruling overturning
state laws against interracial marriage, and another high court
ruling with racial consequences - the 1964 decision requiring states
to redraw legislative district lines so that every voter was counted equally.

The ACLU also successfully argued a 1963 case that banned mandatory
Bible readings in public schools, and a 1969 case that established
free-speech rights for high school students protesting the Vietnam War.

The ACLU was regularly denounced as subversive and anti-American, but
as Mr. Pemberton told a Life magazine interviewer in 1967, "It seems
to me it's inevitable that we should make enemies, because the Bill
of Rights, I think, must inevitably be controversial."

A native of Rochester, Minn., Mr. Pemberton graduated from Harvard
Law School and joined the American Field Service during World War II,
driving an ambulance for the British army in India and Egypt. He
taught law at Duke University and worked as an attorney in Rochester
before leaving to head the ACLU.

He served as a lawyer and acting general counsel of the EEOC from
1970 to 1973, then became a law professor at the University of San
Francisco through 1986, when he was forced to retire by rules then in
effect. Mr. Pemberton then rejoined the EEOC as regional counsel in
San Francisco. He retired in 1994 and taught part-time for the next
two years before suffering a stroke.

Mr. Pemberton is survived by his wife of 36 years, Frances Werner;
daughters Ann Pemberton of South Hadley, Mass., Sally Zalek of
Athens, Ohio, and Caro and Nancy Pemberton, both of San Francisco;
son Jim Pemberton of San Francisco; four grandchildren, and nine

Services are pending.

E-mail Bob Egelko at


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