News / USA

Letters Provide Insight into Civil Rights Giant

New collection of writings by Thurgood Marshall published

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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More