Thurgood Marshall: Mr. Civil Rights in an Era of Racial Regression

Thurgood Marshall was a one-man Black Lives Matter movement. This great civil rights icon and first African-American Supreme Court Justice retired in 1991. He died in 1993, long enough to have watched his seat filled by Clarence Thomas. Perhaps filled is the wrong word. Occupied. No one could replace Thurgood Marshall…least of all Clarence Thomas, who quickly proved to be Bizarro Thurgood — doing everything opposite and not nearly as well.

Thurgood Marshall was a one-man Black Lives Matter movement at a time when the NAACP hung banners proclaiming, 'A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.'
Via Yoichi R. Okamoto & the Library of Congress, public domain.

Without Marshall, would there have been a Black Lives Matter movement? Indeed, the movie Marshall dramatized a period in his career when black lives didn’t matter in the eyes of the law. Yet he wasn’t just a hero for people of color.

Thurgood Marshall is a towering figure in the history of 2oth century America.

He spent his entire life fighting for the lofty ideals expressed in a document which counted his people as three-fifths of a person. But I’m afraid the younger generation — white and black alike — is largely ignorant of the struggles of NAACP lawyers like Marshall, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Even the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People bears a whiff of quaint antiquity.

Colored people? Really!???

That’s why a film like Marshall is so important. This is a time when our president repeatedly asserts that both sides were to blame for the violence of Charlottesville. And, most recently, President Trump sent his Vice President to make a grand show of storming out of a football game in feigned objection to players taking a knee during the national anthem.

In case you just flew in from outer space, football players are taking a knee to protest continuing racial injustice and the gunning down of unarmed black men by the police. In the 21st century.

If Thurgood Marshall — known as Mr. Civil Rights — were still alive, he would shed a tear that such actions were still necessary, his life’s work unfulfilled.

The brilliant and slyly sarcastic Marshall would eventually win the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education desegregating schools…and later take a seat on the highest court of the land. But Marshall follows the brash young Thurgood in 1940, as he defends a black chauffeur against a charge of rape and the attempted murder of the white socialite wife of his employer.

The young attorney explains to the defendant, Joseph Spell, that the NAACP only takes the cases of the innocent. And as the opening crawl informs us, Thurgood Marshall was the organization’s sole lawyer.

Thurgood Marshall was a one-man Black Lives Matter movement at a time when the NAACP hung banners proclaiming, 'A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.'
Via Smash the Iron Cage, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Marshall was something an itinerant civil rights superhero, travelling by train from town to town — an estimated 50,000 miles a year — defending the railroaded. This was a time when the NAACP hung banners outside its headquarters whenever, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” an all frequent occurrence.

Indeed, especially in the South, Marshall’s life was in constant peril. Yet, the Spell case occurred in the supposedly more enlightened North, amid the tony confines of Connecticut affluence.

I won’t reveal how the trial concluded, but I will say that it was decided by an all-white jury. Thurgood Marshall wasn’t even allowed to argue the case.

In the first of a series of roadblocks placed by a biased judge, Marshall was forced to play Cyrano de Bergerac to an overmatched Jewish insurance lawyer. Samuel Friedman, too, was facing his own share of prejudice — in an era of open anti-Semitism — as the Jews of Europe were being led to the slaughter.

Those familiar with racist tropes will not be shocked to hear that Spell was depicted as a sex-crazed animal in the press and in the courtroom.

As The Guardian noted:

Of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1972, 405 were African American, Marshall had noted in a separate court decision [beyond the one abolishing the death penalty for rape in 1977]. Were it not for him, the number would have been even higher.

The Right loves to claim that racism and racial discrimination is history, as dated as the period styles in Marshall. But as recently as 2016, the Supreme Court — in a rare overruling of a death penalty case — held 7-1 that four black jurors had been illegally struck from the jury pool of a black defendant.

The prosecution, who argued to the all-white jury  that a guilty verdict would “deter other people out there in the projects.” The defendant was sentenced to death. If the prosecutors hadn’t been so unusually frank about racial targeting in their notes they might have gotten away with it…as the prosecution usually does on appeal.

Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter in the decision.

And Foster v. Chapman was far from an unusual case. Take Part explained:

Facing an all-white jury can stack the deck against black criminal defendants. All-white jury pools in Florida were 16 percent more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants, according to a 2012 study from Duke University. Researchers who studied Florida non–death penalty cases between 2000 and 2010 found that when just one black juror joined the pool, the gap in conviction rates narrowed to 2 percent.

A Civil Rights Issue for the Post-Thurgood Marshall NAACP

All white juries aren’t the only holdover from the Civil Rights era still being fought in the courts. The modern version of segregation — in the age of Big Data — is computer-analyzed gerrymandering, which is capable of diluting, isolating, or slicing off voter segments with a ultra-fine scalpel.

Thurgood Marshall -- The_Gerry-Mander_Edit
The eponymous gerrymandered district. Others thought it looked like a salamander scrawled out to aid a governor named Gerry. Via Wikimedia, public domain.

ProPublica recently explained why this partisan Republican gerrymandering is ultimately about race:

For example, Georgia currently faces a lawsuit from the NAACP over two changes in their mid-decade redistricting. Ahead of the 2016 election, legislators shifted over a thousand African-American and Hispanic voters out of Georgia House District 105, one of the most contested seats in the state, to a majority-white neighboring district with an uncontested seat. The Republican incumbent in District 105 won by fewer than 250 votes.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a gerrymandering case that has the potential to break the undemocratic GOP suppression of Democratic Party voters and disenfranchisement of minority communities. In the Wisconsin gerrymandered districts under review, Republicans managed to win 60 out of 99 seats in the state Assembly while drawing only 47% of the vote.

Meanwhile, the NAACP continues to fight the good fight for the rights of people of color, as you can see in the Georgia gerrymandering case. Mr. Civil Rights was buried among other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery, but his quest for equality under the law lives on.

Though this article isn’t really a review — I’ll leave that in the expert hands of Andrew Spitznas — I will say that Keith and I both thought that Marshall was excellent movie, illuminating a rarely depicted chapter of the civil rights movement. Chadwick Boseman, as well, did a wonderful job of humanizing a civil rights icon.

At least, Marshall is an icon to everyone who remembers the outsize impact he had on America. But how many young people even know who Thurgood Marshall was? Is he even mentioned as they learn about Brown v. Board of Education in school? If they learn of it at all.

More to the point, how many white people believe there is no longer any need to fight for racial justice? At a time when white nationalists are mowing down idealistic young tolerance activists and a racist sits in the Oval Office, we need more than ever to be reminded of the tireless and courageous battle waged by people like Thurgood Marshall.


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