Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall


Collected here together for the first time are the selected letters of one of the most influential and important activists in the American civil rights movement—the brilliant legal mind and foot soldier for justice, Thurgood Marshall.

For twenty years prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a rebellious young attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, struggled tirelessly to combat racism, discrimination, and segregation...

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Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall

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Collected here together for the first time are the selected letters of one of the most influential and important activists in the American civil rights movement—the brilliant legal mind and foot soldier for justice, Thurgood Marshall.

For twenty years prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a rebellious young attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, struggled tirelessly to combat racism, discrimination, and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, businesses, and voting booths across America. This collection of letters, compiled and edited by Michael G. Long, and written by Thurgood Marshall during his tenure with the NAACP—long before he became a Supreme Court justice—reveals this remarkable man’s extraordinary intellectual development and invaluable contributions to the civil rights movement, highlighting his relentless work in helping secure equality and justice for all Americans.

Long traces Marshall’s correspondence with the most powerful leaders of his day—J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, NAACP leader Walter White, and many others—cataloging how Marshall was able to accomplish in the courts what Martin Luther King Jr. would work to do from the pulpit and on the streets. Through these letters, we discover a startling new portrait of Marshall and gain a deeper understanding of the influences that spurred his unrelenting advocacy for society’s most vulnerable. A window into the history and radical roots of the modern civil rights movement, these letters illuminate the strides that one man made, and the distance that still yawns between his goals and present-day reality.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Readers for whom Marshall is best known for arguing and winning Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967 will find this collection of letters written between 1935 and 1957 thoroughly illuminating. Long's introductions lend a fluidity and coherence to the book; he presents each letter with so much context that the book has elements of a biography of Marshall and a history of the civil rights movement. The letters--which span Marshall's legal career from his first major civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson, in 1936--contain a rich vein of local history as well as correspondence concerning his major cases. Nor does Marshall's major case law focus deter him from attention to media misrepresentation, racial inequities in pay, military racism, or accounts of prison abuse and the persistence of lynching. "At times," Marshall wrote in 1949, "I get a little anxious about people who have no regard whatsoever for the amount of time necessary for lawyers to prepare this involved type of litigation." These letters offer a welcome and readable inner glimpse into that laborious and complex work. (Jan.) Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the
USA Today
Marshalling Justice . . . allows us to see more clearly the trail this legendary litigator blazed for civil rights.”
Washington Lawyer
“[E]nlightening. . . . Lawyers will read this book in total awe of Marshall’s accomplishments. It reads like a panoramic, at times kaleidoscopic history of race in America. . . . Long’s collection of Marshall’s record of work is beyond impressive.”
Louisville Courier Journal
“[Marshall’s] letters are plenty fascinating. Not to mention heartbreaking. . . . [Long] has done a wonderful job researching and editing and reminding us of how much we owe to all of our forebears, and this one in particular.”
Sister to Sister
“An inside look at the personality, experiences and business interactions of the man who would become the first black Supreme Court Justice.”
Kenneth J. Cooper
“Thank Michael G. Long for bringing to a wider public . . . [this] well-edited collection of Marshall’s letters.”
Wil Haygood
“This important collection of Thurgood Marshall’s letters poignantly shows the constant motion of his legal mind - and heart - as he soldiered so bravely in pursuit of equal justice. Michael G. Long deserves high praise indeed for unearthing and bringing them to light.”
Kevin Merida
“Long has done the world a service. . . . The Marshall letters he has unearthed paint a vivid portrait of an unwavering warrior. . . . Marshalling Justice reminds us of how much can be learned from the collected correspondence of a great man. ”
Mark Tushnet
“[These] letters vividly illustrate what life was like for African Americans in the mid-twentieth century and what it was like to be the nation’s most important civil rights lawyer. As good a way to get to know Marshall the man and his life as there is.”
Library Journal
As an NAACP attorney, decades before LBJ appointed him to the Supreme Court, Marshall worked tirelessly against racial discrimination and segregation. This selection of letters reveals the depth and breadth of Marshall's work long before what we consider the start of the Civil Rights Movement.
Kirkus Reviews

Long (Religious Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies/Elizabethtown Coll.; Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America's Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2006, etc.) presents an inspiring account of Thurgood Marshall's work as a civil-rights activist.

As the NAACP's leading lawyer between 1934 and 1957, the author writes, Marshall was "known to everyday blacks as 'Mr. Civil Rights,' struggl[ing] day and night against racial discrimination and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, businesses, voting booths, courtrooms, and neighborhoods." According to Long, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as "the two greatest civil rights leaders in the history of the United States." The approximately 200 letters and memoranda reproduced here give a comprehensive overview of Marshall's role in "galvanizing the civil rights movement" and paving the way for the freedom riders. While Marshall's 1954 victory against segregated schools in Brown v. the Board of Education, which he argued before the Supreme Court, and his defense of Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott were historic legal victories, he worked tirelessly on behalf of ordinary black people who faced lynch mobs, police brutality, biased juries and sentencing to chain gangs for misdemeanors and minor offenses. Although he was primarily a litigator before becoming a judge, he also recognized the importance of grass-roots action when legal action failed—e.g., in 1937, after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys (nine African-American youths wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to be executed), Marshall suggested that a mothers' march be organized to support an appeal for clemency. However, writes Long, he remained wary of the role of "African American militants and individuals with leftist leanings."

A nuanced treatment of a towering figure.

The Barnes & Noble Review

Although he is remembered as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall in his day was one hell of a civil rights lawyer. As general counsel to the NAACP from 1938 to 1961 he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning an astounding 29. These seminal precedents include Smith v. Allwright (1944) (invalidating Texas's all-white Democratic primary); Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) (outlawing racist real estate covenants); and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (prohibiting racial discrimination in public schools). Marshall argued 19 more cases at the Court as the nation's first black Solicitor General, winning 14 of them. With this record he surpasses even John Roberts, the current Chief Justice of the United States and one of the most celebrated appellate lawyers of our time, who argued 39 cases and won 25. And Roberts didn't have to worry about getting lynched on his way home from court.

If Marshall's time on the bench eclipses his civil rights advocacy, so too does the long shadow cast by Martin Luther King. Michael Long, the editor of this inspiring collection of Marshall's early civil rights letters, seeks from the first line of his introductory essay to make sure the overlooked Marshall receives his due. Marshall and King, he argues, were twin pillars holding up the modern civil rights movement, equal in stature. Tension nevertheless separated the two giants: Marshall, who committed his life to the rule of law, disapproved of King's campaign of civil disobedience. In the eyes of posterity, King's legacy was enhanced by his tragic assassination, whereas Marshall lived out a long decline on the Court, cut off from the black community, beset by health problems, and forced by a conservative majority into the impotence of perpetual dissent.

Marshalling Justice rewinds the tape to reveal Marshall at his best, full of energy, outrage, and savvy as he counseled clients and witnesses, demanded action from Southern authorities, argued with colleagues over tactics and strategy, and kidded around. Here he is in 1941, relishing the treat of cross-examining white witnesses during an Oklahoma trial:

They all became angry at the idea of a Negro pushing them into tight corners and making their lies so obvious. Boy, did I like that -- and did the Negroes in the courtroom like it. You can't imagine what it means to these people down there who have been pushed around for years to know that there is an organization that will help them. They are really ready to do their part now. They are ready for anything.

Marshall took on every type of racial injustice, representing black students, soldiers, criminal defendants, homeowners, voters, and ordinary citizens. He challenged businessmen to rename repulsive products like "Whitman's Pickaninny Peppermints" and "Nigger Head Stove Polish." He clashed mightily with good ol' boy editors in the Southern press. One of the book's most arresting features is the contrast between Marshall's assured lawyerliness and the near-illiterate letters he received from would-be clients. One senses from the cover photograph on this book the relief they must have felt to have a brilliant, confident champion headed their way: in the picture Marshall strides forward, hand in pocket, legal papers ready, looking anything but afraid.

Part of his job involved countering crass bigotry with cool reason. To the Secretary of War he wrote:

There can be no argument or belief that a white man who is given a transfusion of blood plasma from a Negro thereby becomes a Negro any more so than the injection of horse serum would make a human being become a horse or the injection or snake serum would change a human being into a water moccasin.

Yet if the arguments were easy, the tactics were not. Setting up a successful lawsuit takes planning and skill, and Marshall took pains to establish a perfect record for cases he knew were headed to the Supreme Court. He preserved arguments and made objections to ensure that no wrinkle of procedure or jurisdiction would obstruct the merits. Some of the letters show colleagues harshly editing briefs Marshall had drafted, but these should not be overblown: even the best attorney's work is challenged and revised, especially when the stakes are high.

The key to Marshall's success as a lawyer was being just radical enough. On some issues he would not budge: disdaining moderates who tried to make the best of "separate but equal" facilities, he pressed relentlessly for full integration. But he also knew that playing ball was sometimes in the movement's interests. He stood behind Harry Truman, who waited too long to move on race issues but then moved decisively. He maintained a surprisingly open line with J. Edgar Hoover and cooperated with the FBI's attempts to root out subversives in the NAACP. (This curious relationship reveals both Marshall's distrust of communists and his recognition of Hoover as a dangerous enemy. Hoover still spied on him.) He formed a working, but not uncritical, alliance with the Justice Department. Above all Marshall played the long game, and with cunning, vision, and immense resolve, became one of the twentieth century's greatest Americans.

--Michael O'Donnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061985188
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/18/2011
  • Pages: 412
  • Sales rank: 1,219,085
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael G. Long is an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College and is the author or editor of several books on civil rights, religion, and politics in mid-century America, including First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson and Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America's Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Atlanta and resides in Highland Park, Pennsylvania.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2012


    I think the book was very insteresting if you ask me i just feel in love with the book but not litterally.

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  • Posted January 3, 2012

    An Inside Look"

    This compilation of letters by Justice Marshall gives the reader a closer look into the mind and heart of this famous American. Mr. Long's explanations are in italics and the letters are arranged in chronological order. His presentation allows the reader to form their own opinion of this legal giant whose letters were not just concerning issues of civil rights.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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