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

EU Court Fines Poland for Hosting CIA 'Black Sites'

Ruling is first time a court has acknowledged suspects were held and tortured at the sites, under US program launched following the 9/11 terrorist attacks More

Migrant Issues Close to Home Spur Groups to Take Action

Groups placing water, food in the desert, or aiding detainees after release, have one common goal: no more deaths of migrants crossing illegally into the US More

Video At AIDS Conference, Prevention Pill Stirs Excitement

Truveda shows promise, spurring debate over access and other approaches 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.
Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnelsi
X
July 24, 2014 4:42 AM
The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video MH17's 'Black Boxes' Could Reveal Crash Details

The government of Malaysia now has custody of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was hit by a missile over Ukraine before crashing last week. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports, the so-called black boxes may hold information about the final minutes of the flight.
Video

Video Living in the Shadows Panel Discussion

Following a screening of the new VOA documentary, "AIDS - Living in the Shadows," at the World AIDS conference in Melbourne, a panel discussed the film and how to combat the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid