July 29, 2021

The Real Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall—perhaps best known as the first African American Supreme Court justice, He also had a profound contribution to the NAACP with his pursuit of racial justice and promoting racial equality during the civil rights movement. As a...

Thurgood Marshall—perhaps best known as the first African American Supreme Court justice, He also had a profound contribution to the NAACP with his pursuit of racial justice and promoting racial equality during the civil rights movement. As a practicing attorney, Marshall argued a record-breaking 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. During his 24-year term as Supreme Court justice, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions. Most historians regard him as an influential figure in shaping social policies and upholding laws to protect minorities.


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Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary
Juan Williams


Thurgood Marshall—perhaps best known as the first African American Supreme Court justice, He also had a profound contribution to the NAACP and his legacy lives on in the pursuit of racial justice and promoting racial equality during the civil rights movement. As a practicing attorney, Marshall argued a record-breaking 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. In fact, Marshall represented and won more cases before the high court than any other person. During his 24-year term as Supreme Court justice, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions. Most historians regard him as an influential figure in shaping social policies and upholding laws to protect minorities.


Born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, Thurgood Marshall was the grandson of a slave from the Congo. His father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter turned steward at an all-white country club and his mother, Norma Williams Marshall, was a school teacher, they instilled in him from youth an appreciation for the hard work and always stand up for yourself, if someone calls you a nigger you address that right here and now. After completing high school in 1925, Thurgood followed his brother, William Aubrey Marshall, to the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Some of his classmates at Lincoln University included poet and author Langston Hughes, the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and was high school friends with jazz musician Cab Calloway. After high school Marshall was accepted to Lincoln University, Lincoln was the top choice for the brightest black boys along the East Coast and Aubrey was also a student at the university. 


After his freshman year to help pay for tuition, he working off campus with his father at the Gibson Island Club. The club, on the Chesapeake Bay, was eighteen miles from Baltimore and a golf and sailing haven for Baltimore’s white, upper-class Protestants. The light-skinned Willie Marshall was in charge of hiring the allblack dining room staff at the club, and he hired Thurgood as a waiter that summer.

One day while Working at Gibson Island, Thurgood was waiting on tables when in came a U.S. senator, “a very vulgah individual,” according to Marshall. The senator saw Thurgood and shouted, “Hey, nigger.” Marshall, who was taught to fight anyone who called him that, for some reason held his temper and went over to his table.

“Nigger, I want service at this table,” the old senator yelled out. The college man decided to play along, not wanting to lose his job. The senator got more and more into showing off for his dinner guests as he hailed Thurgood with shouts of “Nigger” and “Boy.” But when dinner was over, he left an astounding twenty-dollar tip. He did the same every day for nearly a week, giving Thurgood the best-paying week of his young life and putting Thurgood a major step closer to paying his tuition for the coming school year.

But one night Willie Marshall overheard the senator’s rank language and saw Thurgood running up to the table, bowing and saying “Yes, sir!” His father pulled Thurgood into a corner and told him: “You are fired! You are a disgrace to the colored people!”

Thurgood quickly explained that he was making big money off the senator’s obnoxious behavior. In later telling the story, Marshall said he explained to his dad, “Now I figure it’s worth about twenty dollars to be called nigger.… But the minute you run out of them twenties … I’m gonna bust you in the nose!”

This more pragmatic Thurgood was a changed man from the youngster who had dropped the hatboxes and started swinging after being called a name. Having felt his father’s money woes, as well as his mother’s ambition to get him into a good college, Thurgood was fast learning the importance of playing the game even as he stood up for his principles.

In 1930, after graduation, he continued waiting tables because his family needed money because almost everything was going to pay for medical school for Aubrey. His dream was to go to Maryland Law School it was close to home and had low tuition rates but Maryland university had only had two black students graduate from law school program and no black student had been admitted since the 1890s. With no sign that the school planned to change their policy for black law student, Marshall turned to another option Howard University Law School in washington D.C, it was inexpensive, taught law to black students but didnt have the best reputation at the time. Marshall was left biter and never even applyed at Maryland Law School but The issues with Maryland Law School that would directly affect him and the direction of his future professional life. Thurgood sought admission and was accepted at the Howard University Law School that same year and where he graduated first in his class and met his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, who instilled in all of his students the desire to apply the tenets of the Constitution to all Americans. Houston admired his willingness to do work hard, and Marshall wanted to be part of the elite fraternity of Black lawyers, who were respected, had some money, and seemed to be in control of their destiny. Paramount in Houston's outlook was the need to overturn the 1898 Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson which established the legal doctrine called, "separate but equal." Marshall wrote that “Charlie Houston insisted that we be social engineers rather than lawyers,” these words would become Marshalls mentra. 

Upon his graduation from Howard, The insult he had felt at the University of Maryland Law School’s ban on black students still burned him, and he wanted to show that he was now as good as any white Maryland Law graduate. He wanted to get out of law libraries, deal with real cases, make money, and be his own man. Marshall began the private practice of law in Baltimore. 
This was during the Great Depression, and money was tight for whites but almost nonexistent for blacks. Marshall could afford only a tiny office in downtown Baltimore, on the sixth floor of 4 Redwood Street, the Phoenix Building, which housed most of the city’s black lawyers. Marshall’s office was a single room, dominated by a desk that lent him, a phone, and an old but special rug, donated by his parents from their own living-room floor.  In his first year of practice, Marshall lost $3,500. Clients were so scarce that lunch money became a major concern.

Marshall’s lack of work meant he had time to take some more NAACP fact-finding trips with Charles Houston who was their special counsel. They toured Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Mississippi to investigate segregation in schools. Houston often used a movie camera to document the horrid conditions. The schools usually were wooden structures, no more than shacks. They had no insulation, and it was common to be able to see the sky through the many holes in the roofs. The floors were sometimes dirt and ran thick with mud when rain fell. Marshall returned from his trips to the Deep South more convinced than ever of the need to overthrow the racist laws that kept southern blacks poor and uneducated.

In the meantime, his practice began to pick up. He handled divorces, personal injury, car accidents, murder, and rape cases. Marshall even handled a case for his brother, in which Aubrey was sued for $2,500 and charged by another motorist with “reckless driving. In 1935, The Baltimore branch of the NAACP asked him to represent a black suspect, Virtis Lucas, who was accused in the fatal shooting of Hyman Brilliant, a white man. The Baltimore police picked Lucas up and questioned him for three days, severely beating him until he confessed. Marshall, using his brother to help with Lucas’s medical condition, went to the city jail and prepared him to stand trial. In a tense March trial that captivated the city, Marshall stood before an all-white jury and this time pointed the finger of blame at the police. It was an emotional trial for him. He didn’t want to lose another client to the death penalty, and he felt the weight of his family’s history, recalling the stories of his grandfather’s stand against police brutality in the “Cake Walk” homicide. Marshall began his defense by making sure the jury was aware of just how badly his client had been beaten after the arrest. Then he made his client into a sympathetic figure, a weak-minded boy who had been idly shooting off a gun in an alley a few blocks away around the time of the murder. That youngster, Marshall contended, became an easy target for a murder charge when Baltimore police could not find the real killer. The all-white jury was swayed by the young lawyer’s pleadings. Lucas was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to just six months in prison.8 The Baltimore branch of the NAACP was thrilled that Lucas was not sentenced to be hanged. And they were greatly impressed that a black lawyer had been able to defend a black man in Baltimore’s white justice system. 

Marshall was learning how to work with the white legal system, creating a personal network among lawyers and judges in the city and building a reputation for himself as a criminal lawyer. To bolster his case for racial equality, Marshall took to heart Houston’s advice to be twice as good as white lawyers. His briefs were carefully written, and his arguments were well reasoned. “I never filed a paper in any court with an erasure on it. If I changed a word, it had to be typed all over,” he said.10 Marshall’s diligence regularly won judges to his side. Once, when an opposing white lawyer asked a white judge for time to check on the legal citations in Marshall’s brief, the judge said it was not necessary. Even though the judge had a reputation for giving black lawyers a rough time, he told the white attorney: “You don’t have to worry about that—if Mr. Marshall puts his signature on it, you don’t have to check.”

Marshall's first major court case came in 1935 when he sued the University of Maryland to admit a young African American Amherst University graduate named Donald Gaines Murray. As early as 1930 the NAACP had hired Nathan Margold to come up with a legal approach to stop school segregation. Margold wrote that the NAACP should not challenge racial segregation directly but insist that states provide truly equal schools for blacks. His theory was that southern states could not afford to build equal facilities and ultimately would have to admit blacks students to white schools. Marshall now saw his chance to take revenge for the hurt he felt when he discovered his home state law school was closed to him. He had held the anger for years, later saying that the first thing he wanted to do after he got out of Howard was “get even with Maryland for not letting me go to its law school. In 1934, Marshall identified a willing plaintiff. Donald Gaines Murray was a black student with good grades from a good college. Just as Marshall had anticipated, Maryland turned down Murray’s application. University officials suggested he apply to the all-black Princess Anne Academy, part of the state university system. But the academy had no law school. When Murray wrote an angry letter of complaint to the university’s board of regents, they replied that he should consider Howard because it was cheaper than Maryland. the sue began in June 17th, Marshall stood to argue for Murray and cited a 1927 Supreme Court case, Gong Lum v. Rice, in which a Chinese girl in Mississippi sued to gain admission to a white school. The Court ruled against her because schools for colored and Chinese children were available in Mississippi. But in Maryland, Marshall argued, there was no state law school for blacks. In addition, Murray could not go to an out-of-state school because no law school in the country could equal the University of Maryland at teaching the laws of Baltimore and Maryland.

The next day, in startling fashion, The Judge ruled in Murray’s favor. Marshall successfully agured that the University of Maryland of had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law by denying an African American applicant admission to its law school solely on the basis of race.

By 1936, While he was increasingly engaged in NAACP work, Marshall’s law practice was in serious trouble, He had a few small cases, but even when he won he had to wait forever to get paid. So Marshall convinced Houston to hire him as a staff lawyer for the NAACP. When Marshall arrived in October 1936, the NAACP was just blossoming into a major organization. At twenty-six years old, the group had gone through an infancy in which it was nurtured by mostly white social workers and liberal activists to fight lynching. Slowly it had flowered into the premier agency for battling Jim Crow discrimination. And with W.E.B. Du Bois editing The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, the group’s name had become a siren call to action for people willing to stand together to fight racism. Just joining the NAACP was an act of defiance for blacks in the South. And among intellectuals and activists in the North, association meetings had become the center for all strategy and organizing discussions about race in America. Even as it grew, however, the NAACP remained heavily dependent on white philanthropists and The legal department’s budget during Marshall’s first year at the headquarters was only $10,000. Charles Houston was paid $4,000 annually, and after travel and legal expenses there was only $2,400 left for Marshall’s salary.


The NAACP’s initial goal was to funnel equal resources to black schools. Marshall successfully challenged the board to only litigate cases that would address the heart of segregation.
Marshall became the key strategist in the effort to end racial segregation, in particular meticulously challenging Plessy v. Ferguson.  Marshall felt he could have success in Missouri challenging plessy v ferguson. It had no historically black colleges with professional programs to use as a veil. Houston decided that the state was the perfect target for a suit. He got a black college graduate, Lloyd Gaines, to apply to the state law school.

Houston viewed the Missouri suit as key to the NAACP effort to desegregate schools nationwide. He was laying the groundwork for the argument that if no separate but equal schools existed for black students, there was no option but integration. “I firmly believe the Missouri case is going to set the pace for Negro professional and graduate education for the next generation,”

The case finally worked its way up to the Supreme Court in December of 1938. In a surprise victory the Court ruled that the University of Missouri had to admit the twenty-eight-year-old Gaines to its law school. Houston had successfully used the Murray case in Maryland to persuade the high court that Gaines had a right to attend Missouri’s law school. But while the Murray case had had impact only in Maryland, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Missouri case was felt nationwide.

Missouri did not accept defeat easily. In early 1939 officials built a new, Jim Crow law school at historically black Lincoln University in Jefferson City. The state then claimed that with separate and equal facilities available to Gaines, there was no need to admit him to the University of Missouri. The NAACP lawyers rushed to state court to argue that Gaines should be admitted to the university because the new school was not ready to open. After a lower court disagreed, the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NAACP. But one night in Chicago he left the home, to buy stamps, and never returned. He was never seen again by anyone who knew or recognized him and reported doing so.

In January 1940, the state of Missouri moved to dismiss the case due to the absence of the plaintiff. 

Under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston had warned the NAACP against overreach, saying, “Don’t shout too soon.” and Under Houston’s steady leadership, the NAACP enacted a careful case-by-case, year-over-year strategy to undermine the doctrine of separate but equal established by the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Under this gradualist approach, the NAACP pursued litigation that could clearly demonstrate that separate educational resources for Black students were unequal to those of whites. Houston’s blueprint had pushed at Plessy’s edges rather than trying to overturn it, however. Association attorneys argued for equal resources rather than attempt to abolish segregation outright

But Houston was growing tired of the demands of working for a large organization like the NAACP, Another point of irritation for Houston was that he had to take orders from Walter White, a man he viewed as egocentric and with that Houston was reduced his responsibilities at NAACP headquarters and went home to run the family law firm. BY OCTOBER 1938 MARSHALL WAS IN THE LEAD CHAIR at the NAACP’s national legal office in New York

In 1950, Houston was gone, felled by a heart attack a month earlier, in April. Other NAACP leaders felt a more aggressive approach was required, and Marshall had to decide how to proceed.

At the height of summer, he convened a meeting at the association’s headquarters in New York City. Fifty-seven members—43 attorneys from the Legal Defense Fund and National Legal Committee and 14 branch and regional leaders—resolved “to end segregation once and for all.” They inaugurated a new era of NAACP litigation. There would be no more nudging against Plessy and other segregationist statutes; the time had come to try to topple them completely. It was an exceedingly ambitious goal given the state of American race relations at the halfway mark of the century. And Marshall still needed a strategy for achieving it.

In the country’s history, no one had ever filed a case directly challenging public school segregation. At 42, Marshall was a pragmatist with hard-won knowledge of America’s judicial system. He was on the lookout for a case outside of the deep South, where NAACP lawyers had better chances for success with more open-minded judges and juries. But in the meantime there was Clarendon County, South Carolina. 

The disparities between white and Black children’s resources in Clarendon County’s School District Number 22 were indisputable. The district served a rural community that was three-fourths African American. But where the county’s white schools were brick-and-mortar structures with maintained grounds and modern facilities, Black students took classes in dilapidated wooden shacks with no indoor plumbing, forcing them to get water from a community well and use outhouses no matter the elements. Without buses, the Black children walked up to nine miles to get to school.

To Marshall, Clarendon County was a perfect opportunity to litigate for equal facilities, transportation and other resources for the county’s Black children. But it would be foolhardy to push for full desegregation. Marshall knew how slim the odds were of victory in South Carolina. He also understood how dangerous bringing a legal challenge there would be for the case’s plaintiffs, who would bear the full brunt of white supremacist retaliation for even daring to suggest integration. 

Marshall’s hand was forced, however, by the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring. Waring, a white Charlestonian, was the rarest of birds: a Southern activist jurist who supported civil rights. The two first met in 1944 when Marshall argued Duvall v. Seignous, a case about disparities in teacher salaries, before the judge’s bench. Waring, past retirement age by 1950 and a pariah to much of white South Carolina for his racial views, was ready to make one last judicial strike against America’s apartheid educational system.

Marshall arrived in Clarendon County to argue Briggs v. Elliott in November 1950. The suit had come to be named after its lead plaintiffs, navy veteran Harry Briggs and his wife, Eliza Briggs, who was a maid at a local motel. But Waring challenged Marshall to refile the case as a direct attack on the constitutionality of segregation. The new suit could claim that separate educational opportunities, even if materially equal, were a denial of the Briggs’ plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment rights. Neither man was under any illusions that the case would succeed; losing seemed inevitable. But, Waring argued, by bringing this challenge in federal court, a loss guaranteed the case would hopscotch over the U.S. Court of Appeals and be placed directly on the Supreme Court’s docket.

The stakes were immense. If the NAACP were to lose this appeal before the highest court in the land, Plessy v. Ferguson would be reaffirmed and decades of dogged, meticulous work would be lost. It might be decades more before there would be another opportunity to challenge segregation head on. Marshall was conflicted, but decided to move forward with Waring’s plan. Briggs v. Elliott would now be heard before a three-judge panel including Waring. 

On May 28, 1951, Black South Carolinians rose before dawn to travel to the federal courthouse in Charleston, despite the risk of reprisals that could come from merely having appeared there. Joining the hundreds of journiers were reporters who wanted front-row seats to history. The NAACP’s team was performing for a packed courtroom, but also on a national stage as reporters bore witness for The New York Times, New York Post, the Associated Press and numerous other national and local publications. 

At the very outset of the hearing, the school district’s lawyer attempted to upend the trial with a surprise announcement: Clarendon County fully acknowledged that Black and white students’ educational experiences were unequal. To rectify the situation, South Carolina planned to issue $75 million in state bonds to bring Black schools up to par. There was therefore no need, the district’s lawyer reasoned, even to hear the case. Blindsided at first, Marshall recovered, arguing that the County’s “statement just made has no bearing on this litigation,” since the NAACP’s suit maintained “segregation in and of itself is unlawful.” The case proceeded, and Marshall’s team sought to demonstrate the injury inflicted upon Black children by segregated education.

Marshall lost Briggs v. Elliott as expected. Two of the three judges who heard the case agreed that Clarendon County’s Black students received an inferior education and called for the inequities to be corrected. But they held that the decision to segregate schools remained with the state. As Judge Waring had foreseen, however, the loss ensured a Supreme Court appeal. Ultimately, that appeal was consolidated with four other cases that, three years later, led to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of America’s public schools. 

The case originated in 1951 when the public school district in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll the daughter of local black resident Oliver Brown at the school closest to their home, instead requiring her to ride a bus to a segregated black elementary school farther away. Unlike school districts of other states involved in the combined case, in Topeka the lower courts, while still requiring certain remedies, had found that the segregated schools were "substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers." Hence with the involvement of the Kansas case the Supreme Court's findings specifically hinged upon the matter of segregation. The Browns and twelve other local black families in similar situations then filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court against the Topeka Board of Education, alleging that its segregation policy was unconstitutional. When Brown’s case and four other cases (inculeding Briggs v. Elliott) related to school segregation first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court combined them into a single case under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 

Thurgood Marshall, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served as chief attorney for the plaintiffs.  At first, the justices were divided on how to rule on school segregation, with Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson holding the opinion that the Plessy verdict should stand. But in September 1953, before Brown v. Board of Education was to be heard, Vinson died, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced him with Earl Warren, then governor of California.

Displaying considerable political skill and determination, the new chief justice succeeded in engineering a unanimous verdict against school segregation the following year.

In the decision, issued on May 17, 1954, The Court then concluded its opinion by declaring that segregated public education was inherently unequal, violated the Equal Protection Clause,(The Equal Protection Clause is part of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The clause, provides "nor shall any State ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". It mandates that individuals in similar situations be treated equally by the law) and therefore segregation in public schools was unconstitutional

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment." 

This landmark case was considered Marshall’s greatest victory as a civil-rights lawyer,In 1961, newly-elected President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. A group of Senators from the South, led by Mississippi's James Eastland, held up his confirmation, so he served for the first several months under a recess appointment

Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court.

In 1965, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed Marshall to serve as the first Black U.S. solicitor general, the attorney designated to argue on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court. During his two years as solicitor general, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court. (appointment by the president of a federal official when the U.S. Senate is in recess.) Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first Black Solicitor General. the attorney designated to argue on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court. During his two years as solicitor general, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court.

In 1967, following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson appointed Marshall, the first Black justice, to the U.S. Supreme Court, proclaiming it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and the right man and the right place.”. On October 2, 1967, Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American to serve on the nation's highest court. Marshall joined a liberal Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William J. Brennan which aligned with Marshall's views on politics and the Constitution. Marshall once bluntly described his legal philosophy as this: "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up", a statement which his conservative detractors argued was a sign of his embracement of judicial activism

As a Supreme Court justice, Marshall consistently supported rulings upholding strong protection of individual rights and liberal interpretations of controversial social issues. He was part of the majority that ruled in favor of the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, among several other cases. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which led to a de facto moratorium on the death penalty, Marshall articulated his opinion that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances.

During Marshall’s tenure on the Supreme Court, he was a steadfast liberal, stressing the need for equitable and just treatment of the country’s minorities by the state and federal governments. A pragmatic judicial activist, he was committed to making the U.S. Constitution work; most illustrative of his approach was his attempt to fashion a “sliding scale” interpretation of the equal protection clause that would weigh the objectives of the government against the nature and interests of the groups affected by the law. Marshall’s sliding scale was never adopted by the Supreme Court, though in several major civil rights cases of the 1970s the Court echoed Marshall’s views. He was part of the majority that ruled in favor of the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which led to a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Marshall articulated his opinion that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstance. He was also adamantly opposed to capital punishment and generally favoured the rights of the national government over the rights of the states.

Marshall served on the Supreme Court as it underwent a period of major ideological change. In his early years on the bench, he fit comfortably among a liberal majority under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. As the years passed, however, many of his closest allies, including Warren, either retired or died in office, creating opportunities for Republican presidents to swing the pendulum of activism in a conservative direction. By the time he retired in 1991, he was known as “the Great Dissenter,” one of the last remaining liberal members of a Supreme Court dominated by a conservative majority. Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed to replaced him.

In January 24, 1993, Marshall died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he was 84. normally this would be were most peoples legacy would end but in 1996, USA Today broke the news that the late Supreme Court justice and civil rights lawyer had acted as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the 50s. This story only surfaced after the FBI finally responded to a request for the agency's files on Marshall through a Freedom of Information request, three years after Marshall died the FBI turned over roughly 1,300 pages' worth of material on the late justice.

Marshall public actions as against state-sponsored segregation as a young attorney, then working as staff lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and later acting as its chief legal counsel had caught the eye of the FBI. Marshall was a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a group that represented labor unions, civil rights groups and, during the Red Scare late 40s, early 50s, a number of suspected Communists. Files from the era show that the bureau monitored the group closely, even wiretapping its members and asking for personal denouncements from their associates. Marshall was on the FBI’s radar because of his membership in the NLG. But he wondered if cooperating with the bureau might be a way to protect the NAACP from accusations of Communism. First, he got himself on the FBI’s radar by writing letters to the agency claiming that they weren’t doing enough to protect black Southerners. He even met with the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, after exchanging a series of heated letters criticizing the FBI. He’d been in the FBI’s sights before—but now Marshall was well aware he was being spied on. He tolerated that surveillance in exchange for the ability to potentially protect the NAACP. The civil rights lawyer, like the agency, was increasingly concerned that Communists might be infiltrating the NAACP.


Marshall and other civil rights leaders knew that being associated with Communists at the height of the Red Scare would diminish the organization’s credibility and damage its reputation. The in a pivotal 1950 NAACP convention in Boston, a far-reaching resolution passed calling for a systematic purge of communists from the ranks. Predictably, the FBI was not satisfied with these sweeping purges. In 1956, Thurgood Marshall was continuing to consult with the FBI about alleged "communist infiltration" of the NAACP. Marshall thought, might help shield the NAACP in exchange for information about Communists (and, perhaps, focus on other organizations instead). And so he began feeding select information to the bureau.

Marshall repeatedly contacted the FBI against people like North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams, who had run afoul of the FBI because of his refusal to go along with the prevailing tactic of passive, non-violent resistance. In 1959, when Monroe juries acquitted two white men of assaulting black women, Williams made his courthouse declaration:

"Since the federal government will not stop lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence."

This led to his suspension and eventually led to Williams feeling compelled to flee the South and relocate to Cuba. Marshall pointed fingers at suspected Communists. And he kept channels of communication with Hoover and the FBI open. But unbeknownst to Marshall, Hoover had set up COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program that specifically targeted the civil rights movement. He authorized his agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” various civil rights-focused organizations. (Though they did not include the NAACP, there was significant crossover within the movement.)

The FBI’s attacks on civil rights didn’t just focus on groups it considered extreme.  Despite numerous tips that the Freedom Rides of 1961 would turn violent, the FBIdid not act, and it turned a blind eye to other attacks against Civil Rights leaders. Hoover eventargeted Martin Luther King, Jr., hounding him, collecting salacious information they might use to eventually discredit him, and continuing their baseless investigations long after it was clear that he presented no threat.

Ultimately, Marshall got something else from J. Edgar Hoover—support for his rising career. “He was convinced I was responsible for routing the commies out of the NAACP, and I did,”said Marshall in an interview. However, it’s uncertain exactly how much Hoover’s approval of Marshall helped him professionally, or how the civil rights movement might have fared without FBI interference.

Given the FBI’s meddling in the fight for civil rights, it’s easy to interpret Marshall’s actions as those of a traitor interested in his own reputation over that of the movement. but it’s easy to forget the price a group could pay for being associated with the Communists during theRed Scare of the 1950s—social ostracism, imprisonment, the loss of tax-exempt status for organizations, and the loss of the ability to practice law for individuals. Though Marshall never spoke at length about his cooperation with the FBI during his lifetime, his letters and some brief interviews reveal that he thought he was helping the NAACP by protecting them from the FBI’s wrath. Marshall’s relationship with the FBI shows what was at stake as civil rights—and the compromises that need to be made. 

Marshall’s status as a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement and worked diligently and tirelssly to uphold the principles of civil rights, end and to end the doctrine of separate-but-equal. Thurgood can be sumed up in one of his quotes

"A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks."