Melvyn R. Leventhal

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Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal (born March 18, 1943)[1] is an American attorney known primarily for his work as a community organizer and lawyer in the 1960s–1970s Civil Rights Movement, and for being the husband of author Alice Walker for ten years, and part of the first legally married interracial couple in the history of Mississippi.

Early life and education[edit]

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, Leventhal attended a yeshiva elementary school,[1] and Brooklyn Technical H.S. When he was nine years old, his parents divorced, and he and his siblings were split up, with the father taking Leventhal's older brother to live with him. Leventhal recalled that he rarely saw his father after that, and that on one occasion, when Leventhal was a teen-ager, he took a younger sibling to see their father who "slammed the door in our face".[1] In Leventhal's formative years he was greatly influenced by Judaism's emphasis on community service and recalls in particular being "outraged and disgusted by the way white people treated Jackie Robinson".[1] He resolved to fight injustice, and in pursuit of this, after receiving his undergraduate degree from New York University's Washington Square College in 1964, he received his J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 1967.[2]

Early career and marriage[edit]

As a young lawyer, Leventhal worked in Mississippi for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and from this work he formed the first interracial law partnership in the history of the state, with Reuben V. Anderson, Fred L. Banks Jr., and John A. Nichols. Anderson and Banks would go on to become the first two African American justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court.[3]

Through his work, Leventhal met Alice Walker, who came to trust and admire him due to his willingness to endanger his own social status and well-being by standing up to bigotry. On March 17, 1967, Leventhal and Walker married in New York, in a civil ceremony performed by Family Court Judge Justine W. Polier.[4] The marriage was at that time illegal in Walker's home state of Georgia.[4] When the couple returned to Mississippi in July 1967, they became "the first legally married interracial couple in the state".[5] Walker and Leventhal had one child, Rebecca Walker, and divorced in 1976.[6]

While in Law School, during spring, summer and winter recesses, Leventhal worked as a student volunteer at LDF's offices in Jackson, Mississippi under the supervision of Marian Wright Edelman. This included serving as LDF's liaison to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the June, 1966 Meredith March Against Fear, from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.[7]

From 1969 through 1974 Leventhal served as LDF's lead counsel in Mississippi. He represented plaintiffs in approximately 75 lawsuits filed throughout the state to eliminate segregation and discrimination in public schools and to eliminate discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing and in the provision of municipal services (e.g., street paving, street lighting and fire protection). After Leventhal moved back to New York in 1974, he was, until 1978, an LDF staff attorney litigating cases brought in Mississippi and throughout the United States. Leventhal’s ten-year career at the LDF was highlighted by three landmark cases:

  • Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19 (1969), through which the Supreme Court of the United States brought to an end the era of "all deliberate speed" and ordered school districts to desegregate "at once".
  • Norwood v. Harrison, 413 U.S. 455 (1973), through which the Supreme Court of the United States held unconstitutional state textbook assistance to private schools that discriminate on the basis of race.
  • Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, 437 F.2d 1286 (5th Cir. 1971), aff'd on rehearing en banc, 461 F. 2d 1171 (5th Cir. 1972), through which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, upheld lawsuits challenging racial discrimination in the provision of municipal services.

Leventhal also testified before the United States Senate's Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity (Chair: Hon. Walter Mondale) in 1970, on the progress of school desegregation in Mississippi.[8]

Later public service career[edit]

Leventhal returned to live in New York in 1974, and eventually remarried.[6] Between 1979 and 1984, Leventhal served first as the Assistant Attorney General of New York, in charge of the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau [2] and then as the Deputy First Assistant Attorney General of New York and Chief of the Litigation Bureau. Leventhal has argued two cases before the Supreme Court of the United States, Norwood v. Harrison, 413 U.S. 455 (1973) (argued in 1972) and Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886 (1984) (argued in 1983).[9]


  1. ^ a b c d Evelyn C. White, Alice Walker: A Life (2004), p. 135-137.
  2. ^ a b State of New York, The New York Red Book, p. 593.
  3. ^ Supreme Court Justice Fred L. Banks Jr. announces he is stepping down (September 28, 2001).
  4. ^ a b Rudolph P. Byrd, The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker (2011), p. xxxviii.
  5. ^ Elizabeth H. Oakes, American Writers (2004), p. 354.
  6. ^ a b Rudolph P. Byrd, The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker (2011), p. xlvi-xlvii.
  7. ^ Aram Goudsouzian, "Down To The Crossroads," (2014), p. 95.
  8. ^ United States Senate, Part 3B, Desegregation Under Law, July 8, 1970, pp. 1495-1534.
  9. ^ "Oyez page on Melvyn R. Leventhal". Retrieved August 20, 2017.