News / USA

Letters Provide Insight into Civil Rights Giant

New collection of writings by Thurgood Marshall published

Multimedia

Audio
Faiza Elmasry

Thurgood Marshall is perhaps best known as the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, where he served from 1967 to 1991. But he had a long history of working for justice. As an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he waged legal battles against racial discrimination which helped reshape American society.

Now, a new collection of letters from that period offers a new portrait of Marshall as an important force in the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership of the black boycott of the city’s public transportation system are widely acknowledged as pivotal events in the civil rights struggle. But almost 20 years before that, a young attorney with the NAACP laid the groundwork for the movement’s success.

'Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall,' by author Michael Long.
'Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall,' by author Michael Long.

"Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as the most important civil rights leader in the latter half of the 20th century exactly because of Thurgood Marshall’s work in the 20 years that led up to 1957," says Michael Long, author of "Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall." "It’s unfair to believe that King had just emerged from nowhere. He emerged out of a culture and society that had already begun to break down racial discrimination. In fact, Rosa Parks was a member of the NAACP."

The letters Marshall wrote between 1936 and 1957 reveal the depth and breadth of his civil rights work.

"The basic idea behind the letters is this, let’s get rid of segregation," says Long. "He played a role of African-American male in the south at the time. He ate in segregated restaurants. He drove in segregated taxis. He played the role of the segregated black man in order to further the cause. He never wanted to draw attention to himself as he put it. He wanted to fight for the cause."

Marshall used everything from points of law to righteous indignation to make his case. In a letter to the New Mexico Department of Education about segregated schools in the city of Alamogordo, he wrote: "It seems that the one school for Negroes in Alamogordo is taught by one teacher who teaches grades from the first grade through the junior high school. It’s almost unbelievable that in this modern system of education one teacher can be expected to be proficient in teaching all grades from the first grade to the junior high school at the same time and in the same small building."

"Marshall was a great letter writer," says Long. "He would sit down at the typewriter and just pound out a letter. He also wrote them on a yellow legal pad, in blue ink. He wrote letters to all the major personalities of his day. He wrote to presidents, he wrote to politicians."

He also wrote to generals. In 1940, as war raged in Europe, he complained about segregated wards in military veterans' hospitals to the adminstrator of Veteran Affairs, Gen. Frank Hines, highlighting the relationship between democracy and racial justice.

"It is to be regretted that this type of discrimination should exist in any project using federal funds exclusively," he wrote. "With the present unsettled conditions throughout Europe, the United States is itself on trial as the last proving ground for democracy."

Marshall also wrote to everyday African-Americans struggling against racial discrimination, especially in the South.

"Some of the letters ended up on his desk were very illiterate. They were full of misspelling and typos, very difficult to read some of these letters, it's just difficult to figure out what they're saying," says Long. "Marshall would sit at his desk and he would read those letters very carefully and he would craft a beautiful response to them and mail a letter back. In some of the letters that he wrote, we can see a very compassionate, warm, sensitive side of Marshall that we don’t normally see."

Long believes it is important for younger generations to read these letters, and learn about the man whose work still impacts lives.

"I think we can see how he shaped history today, if we look at the White House and we see who is there. I think we can trace the presence of President Obama to Marshall’s work. I think Obama is a very rich legacy of the civil rights work of Thurgood Marshall. Marshall worked for that not only here in the United States, but also worldwide. He assisted some countries in crafting their constitutions, Kenya for example. Marshall played a leading role in helping people think about liberty, freedom and equal justice under law."

And because liberty, freedom and equality are basic rights, "Marshalling Justice" author Michael Long hopes Thurgood Marshall’s words will continue to inspire people everywhere in their battles for justice.

You May Like

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid