Robert L. Gnaizda ’57, Civil Rights and Public Interest Attorney

Robert L. Gnaizda ’57, a prominent public interest attorney who advocated for social justice and civil rights, spent five decades fighting on behalf of the underdog. During his career he took on myriad powerful opponents, including Southern counties that tried to disenfranchise Black voters, employers who discriminated in hiring and banks that redlined neighborhoods to prevent minorities from obtaining loans or mortgages.

“Bob Gnaizda was, in my opinion, the most imaginative, creative and consequential public interest lawyer of his generation in the United States,” said J. Anthony Kline, presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco, who, with Gnaizda and two others, formed a pioneering public interest law rm in California in 1971 that won a legal battle that forced the San Francisco Police and Fire Departments to end discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.

Gnaizda, who graduated from Stuyvesant H.S. and earned a law degree from Yale in 1960, died in San Francisco on July 11, 2020. He was 83.

Rebecca Kee ’05, who was Gnaizda’s deputy and became his lifelong friend, described him to CCT as “brilliantly smart, quick-thinking and focused on his work, to the exclusion of pleasantries and small talk .... that is, unless you’re lucky enough to find yourself with him in a quiet, uncrowded place and you happen to ask about what exactly he was doing in Mississippi during the 1960s.

“Suddenly his eyes are twinkling as he tells you his best stories, the ones of ingratiating himself with suspicious officials through friendly baseball trivia or his tale of faking a federal order to hold hearings in the deep south about the mistreatment of Black voters. To most of us it’s history come to life, but to Bob it’s just tales of the good old days, hiding people on the floor of his back seat so that he could stir up legal trouble to shake down the powers-that-be.”

Born in Brooklyn on August 6, 1936, Gnaizda’s passion for civil rights was sparked when he was young. Growing up in Brownsville, then a tough Jewish neighborhood, he defended friends against neighborhood bullies, and later watched the abuse to which Jackie Robinson was subjected from some fans and even fellow players at Ebbets Field as he broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As a young lawyer, he collected testimony on how white officers were preventing Black people from voting in Clay County, Miss., that helped influence the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The following year, during the era of Cesar Chavez, he co-founded California Rural Legal Assistance and took class action cases on behalf of farmworkers forced to work for low wages in poor conditions.

In 1973 Gnaizda co-founded Public Advocates in San Francisco to discourage financial institutions from discriminating against Black and Hispanic home buyers. He served as deputy secretary of health and welfare for the State of California under Gov. Jerry Brown 1975–76.

In 1993 he co-founded the Greenlining Institute, bringing together a diverse group of community leaders to fight against redlining and for the economic empowerment of communities of color. He later was general counsel for the National Asian American Coalition and the National Diversity Coalition, fighting on behalf of universal access to affordable housing, small business loans and equal opportunity. Gnaizda was interviewed for the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (2010) about his efforts in the mid-2000s to warn the Federal Reserve of the impending subprime mortgage crisis.

“Bob saw the world as it is, yet he moved through it as if he could just mold it to his will and forge new pathways toward justice and equality for all,” said Kee, his former deputy.

Gnaizda is survived by his wife, Claudia Viek; sons from a previous marriage, Josh and Matt; and one granddaughter.

Alex Sachare ’71

Read more about Gnaizda’s and Kee’s work together in CCT Online’s “Like Minds” Q&A, “Talking Social Advocacy with Robert Gnaizda ’57 and Rebecca Kee ’05.”