Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall - By Michael G. Long
When Thurgood Marshal, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, resigned from the Court for reasons of ill health in 1991, he had served for twenty-four years. It took his death two years later for people to remember what a legacy he left this country: general counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1938 through 1961; first black judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; first black solicitor general of the United States. While with the NAACP he argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, winning twenty-nine of them. During his four-year tenure on the Court of Appeals, he issued one hundred twelve rulings, none of which were reversed on certiorari by the Supreme Court. His record as solicitor general was equally impressive; he won fourteen of the nineteen cases he argued on behalf of the United States.

Marshall was born in Jim Crow Maryland in 1908, the grandson and great grandson of slaves. His father was a porter and his mother was a teacher. He attended all-black Lincoln University with the intention of becoming a dentist, but in his first several years of school he majored primarily in hijinks. After marrying, Marshall buckled down and graduated with honors, earning a BA in American literature and philosophy. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland law school, but they refused admittance to black students. He ended up at all-black Howard University just when it was being turned into a first rate law school by its new dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. Being mentored by Houston set him on the path of his life’s work, representing and defending the voiceless in society. In the black community he became known as Mr. Civil Rights.

Marshalling Justice reminds us that Marshall made his most enduring contributions during his years as an attorney for the NAACP. When he began his work in 1938, the South was firmly in the grip of Jim Crow. The majority of blacks still toiled on plantations as sharecroppers, tethered to their positions by peonage. Public accommodations and schools at all levels were separate and grossly inferior. Blacks had virtually no hope of being treated fairly by the criminal justice system and were forbidden to sit on juries. Lynchings were often announced in advanced, unspeakably violent and never punished. Every time Marshall ventured into the south to stand up for the rights of blacks, he was risking his life; blacks who cooperated with him were often risking theirs, too. In the early years of his career, it was deemed a victory when Marshall was able to beat back the death penalty in return for a lifetime sentence for a client. However, even at his most discouraged he–and the courageous blacks litigants he represented–soldiered on.

On less-than-a-shoestring budget and with painstaking preparation, Marshall and the NAACP began to make headway against racial discrimination. His victories read like a who’s who of civil rights issues. In Murray v Pearson (1936), Marshall successfully challenged the so called separate but equal clause in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) that was used to bar black students from public colleges, graduate and professional schools, thereby exacting revenge upon the University of Maryland Law School. He convinced the Supreme Court to dismantle the white primary in Smith v Allwright (1944) and won three more cases against public universities that discriminated against black students: Shelley v Kramer (1948); Sweatt v Painter (1950) and McLaurin v Oklahoma State Regents (1950). Those cases paved the way for the victory in Brown v Board of Education (1954). Marshall also argued Browder v Gayle (1956) which struck down segregated seating on intrastate buses and successfully represented civil rights demonstrators in Garner v Louisiana (1956), a case in which one of the justices likened sit-ins to speech.

Marshalling Justice also shows us the scope and reach of Marshall’s work. Marshall fought for the rights of African American soldiers during World War II–he was vehemently against the establishment of the all black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen–and the Korean war. He worked tirelessly to equalize the salaries of black school teachers across the country, and wrote southern officials urging them to investigate lynchings, often times providing them with evidence they claimed did not exist. Marshall regularly wrote to the executive director and Board of Trustees of the NAACP to complain about his abysmal pay and working conditions. No act of discrimination was too small to escape his attention; he conducted a lengthy correspondence with Whitman Candy company officials who labeled one of their products Pickanniny Peppermints, Chocolate Covered; they deemed the name a compliment to cute black children. Marshall’s rapier-like pen forced the company to drop the name.

The one blot on Marshall’s record was his cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. While he was often quite critical of the organization–he sent Hoover a number of letters complaining about the Bureau’s inaction in the face of violence against African Americans–his fear of subversives led him to serve as an informant, reporting on activities and people he thought harmful to the black community.

Marshall was also out of step with the non-violent direct action approach of the civil rights movement. Prizing the rule of law above virtually everything, he was highly critical of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the doctrine of civil disobedience, which earned him the sobriquet Uncle Tom among younger, more radical participants in the civil rights movement. That criticism ensured that in life and death he would always be eclipsed by the younger man even though he made King’s work possible.

Michael G. Long ultimately decided to organize the letters, which cover the period 1935 through 1957, chronologically, and that allows the reader to see the twentieth century history and trajectory of the fight for equality and the development of Marshall’s philosophy of jurisprudence. In the Foreword, the late Derrick Bell, the first black tenured professor at Harvard University Law School, provides searing historical context on the American dilemma of race and the repeatedly dashed hopes for a post-racial society.

Marshall’s NAACP days, though difficult and fraught with danger and disappointment, were indeed his finest. His letters show a brilliant tactician who never forgot that his pen was often all that stood between the powerful and the powerless, and remind us that sometimes the pen truly is mightier than the sword. This remarkable collection of letters restores Thurgood Marshall to his rightful place in history: the radical rebel who, although always aware of the enormous odds arrayed against African Americans, always hoped that “One of these days, we will make democracy work in this country.”


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.