*Published with generous permission from Teri Kanefield. Read her full blog here.
In honor of Black History month, I thought I’d share some of what I learned while researching this biography of Thurgood Marshall:
You may want to grab your favorite warm beverage and settle into a comfortable chair for this one. (Citations are in the book).
Only one of Marshall’s grandparents was enslaved when the Civil War broke out—the grandfather for whom he was named: Thoroughgood Marshall. Thoroughgood escaped slavery during the chaos that ensued when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. He went to Baltimore and blended in among the free African Americans. He went by the nickname Thorny Good, which he thought suited him better than Thoroughgood.
In Baltimore, Thorny Good worked as a waiter. Later he joined the army and went to Texas with the all-Black 24th Regiment of the U.S. Calvary. After being discharged in 1874, he returned to Baltimore and married a girl named Annie Robinson.
Thorney Good and Annie opened a grocery and dry goods store on the corner of Dolphin and Division streets. One day the electric company came to install a power pole on the sidewalk directly in front of the store. Annie marched outside and told the workmen it was her sidewalk and she didn’t want a pole in the middle of it. She shooed them away.
They returned with a court order allowing them to install a pole. Annie came outside with her kitchen chair and placed it over the designated spot on the sidewalk. Into the chair, she sat. She refused to budge. “This went on for days and weeks,” Marshall said, “and finally, Grandma Annie emerged as the victor of what may have been the first successful sit-down strike in Maryland.”
Thurgood Marshall—whose real name was Thoroughgood Marshall—was born on July 2, 1908, in Old West Baltimore. He was in second grade when he announced that his first name was too long and just too much. He told his family he wished to be called “Thurgood.” That was how he came to be Thurgood Marshall.
In 1930, he graduated from Lincoln University college with honors. He wanted to go to the University of Maryland Law School, but it was a whites-only school. He called several lawyers in Baltimore to see if there was anything he could do to get in. Each lawyer he spoke to gave the same answer: There was nothing to be done.
His only option was Howard Law School, a then-unaccredited all-Black school in Washington D.C. Marshall arrived at Howard Law School just after Charles Houston took over as Howard’s dean. Houston, who was already a legend in legal circles, intended to get the law school accredited and turn it into a top-notch institution.
Houston had graduated high school at the age of fifteen, the son of one of Washington D.C.’s few prominent African American lawyers. He attended the mostly white Amherst College. He responded to the racism of his classmates by being disciplined, hardworking, and aloof. He graduated from Amherst at the top of his class. He then joined the Army and served in Europe in World War I. He had no legal training, but when he found that Black soldiers were often convicted on flimsy charges without evidence, he figured out how to give them legal assistance. The experiences made him want to be a lawyer.
When the war ended in 1919, he enrolled in Harvard Law School. He excelled and became the first African American student to edit the Harvard Law Review. He earned his law degree in 1922. Harvard offered him a scholarship to work toward a doctorate in law. When he earned his doctorate, he was the best-educated African-American lawyer in America.
Houston believed a lawyer was either a social engineer or a parasite. He told his students, “Men, you’ve got to be social engineers. We’ve got to turn this whole thing around. And the Black man has got to do it; nobody’s going to do it for you.” He demanded perfection because everything a lawyer did was public. “The difference between law and other professions, like medicine,” Houston said, “is the doctors bury their mistakes, but the lawyer’s mistakes are made public. You’ve got to go out and compete with the other man, and you’ve got to be better than he is.”
Houston treated the law school like an elite law firm: He put the students to work on civil rights cases. Later Marshall said, “I never worked hard until I got to Howard Law School and met Charlie Houston . . . I saw this man’s dedication, his vision, his willingness to sacrifice, and I told myself, ‘You either shape up or ship out.’ When you are being challenged by a great human being, you know that you can’t ship out.”
Marshall graduated from law school with honors. While he was waiting for the results of his bar exam, Houston invited him to take a trip into the deep South to investigate conditions in the segregated schools. Houston saw the trip as a fact-finding mission. He hoped to collect enough documentation to begin a legal assault on segregation. Houston understood that as a result of Jim Crow laws, racism was becoming institutionalized. The longer it went on and the deeper it sank into the American consciousness, the harder it would be to reverse.
The problem was the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that racial segregation did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities were equal, which they never actually were. The situation seemed hopeless. Marshall and Houston, determined to find a solution, packed a camera, a typewriter, notebooks, pens, and pencils. They were not allowed to eat in restaurants, so they carried bags of fruit and other food. They drove through Virginia and the Carolinas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi. What they found was appalling, grinding poverty.
African American children in the Deep South were entirely cut off from white America. They couldn’t even step into a public facility. In some places, it was simply impossible for Black children to attend school past third or fourth grade. White employers and owners of the land often made sure that if every person wasn’t in the fields picking, the workers would starve, and by the age of 10 a child was considered old enough to work.
Marshall had limited employment options, so he joined several other Black lawyers and rented four rooms in the Phoenix Building and went into private practice. He earned his living taking on whatever work came his way: Divorces, wills, contract drafting.
The Strategy for Ending Segregation in America
One of Houston’s friends and colleagues, Harvard-educated Nathan Margold, suggested that they shouldn’t try attacking segregation itself. The plan could backfire on them by prompting the Supreme Court to reaffirm its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Margold thought they should insist that states live up to the requirement in Plessy v. Fergusson and provide truly equal schools. His idea was that if states and local communities were forced to provide schools for African Americans that were as good as the school for whites, they would understand that the duplication in costs—separate buildings, separate labs, separate gyms, etc.—would not be worth it. Marshall thought the idea was a good one. “The South would go broke paying for truly equal, dual systems,” he said.
Southern officials would have to choose between going broke or letting Black children attend schools with whites.
Houston and Marshall refined Margold’s ideas into what they called their “equalization strategy.” They would file lawsuits demanding that communities either provide equal facilities for African Americans or admit them to white institutions. They would start with public schools because the Fourteenth Amendment specifically applied to states, and public schools were run by local governments. At the same time, they would lay the groundwork for the next step—an actual challenge to Plessy v. Fergusson.
Marshall thought it was best to begin with professional schools. Providing separate but equal elementary school classrooms was much easier than providing separate but equal medical schools or law schools. A state couldn’t possibly duplicate the facilities, libraries, laboratories, and faculty of a medical or law school. If only one African American student applied, it would be absurd to build a separate but equal school, so the student would have to be admitted to the all-white school. This would break the barrier in a way least alarming to the white population. Marshall understood that whites were more likely to respond with fury to mixing younger children. Moreover, law schools and professional schools at the time were almost entirely male. Demanding that a fully qualified Black man be admitted to an all-male law school or medical school was less likely to create an uproar than mixing both race and gender. The goal was to educate judges and get the public accustomed to the idea of integration and raise awareness that segregation was based on hatred and racism.
To get started, they needed a plaintiff who was (1) qualified for admission to a law or professional school (2) willing to apply and get rejected, and then (3) willing to sue the university. About that time. Donald Gaines Murray, a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate from Amherst College, wanted to study law at the University of Maryland but was ineligible for admission because of his race. He became their plaintiff. Marshall took special delight in suing the University of Maryland Law School for refusing to admit a qualified Black student.
After going through all the procedural steps required by the university, they sued, alleging that the state of Maryland violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to provide a state law school for African Americans equivalent to the school for whites. They demanded that the schools be equal, down to the quality of the buildings, the number of books in the libraries, and the caliber of professors.
On June 25, 1935, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues secured their first victory: A federal judge ordered Donald Murray to be admitted to the University of Maryland school of law. After the court announced its decision, one of the state lawyers who had argued against allowing Murray to attend the University of Maryland School of Law asked to speak. He said: “I wish to be quoted as saying that I hope that Mr. Murray leads the class in the law school.”
The victory turned Marshall and his colleagues into civil rights heroes. They organized, recruited lawyers, and raised funds. They brought one lawsuit after another, winning each one, forcing law and professional schools to admit Black students, painstakingly building up a body of appellate law holding that if facilities were not equal Black students must be admitted to white institutions.
Marshall spent the better part of the next two decades suing law and professional schools, winning cases and forcing law and professional schools to admit Black students. He also took on police abuses and other areas that needed reform. In Texas, for example, Black Americans were not permitted to serve on juries. So Marshall made plans to head down to Texas to see what he could do.
When the Dallas chief of police learned that Marshall was coming to Dallas to investigate local jury practices, he called his top officers and told them that a Black lawyer was coming from New York to stir up trouble. He told the officers not to lay a hand on Thurgood Marshall because he planned to “personally take him out and kick the shit out of him.”
Marshall received a warning that the Dallas chief of police planned to shoot him on the spot. “I sort of considered the idea of having a bad cold or something and not going down there,” Marshall said. He’d heard that the governor of Texas, James Allred, was a fair and decent man. So Marshall called Allred and explained the situation. “I give you my word,” Allred said. “If you come down here, you will not be injured.”
So Marshall went. Allred assigned a Texas ranger to protect Marshall. The ranger kept referring to Marshall as ‘boy,’ but Marshall soon learned that he was the “right man for the job.” When the chief of police caught up with Marshall and shouted, “I’ve got you now!” The ranger calmly pulled out his gun and pointed it at the chief of police. “Fella,” he said, “just stay right where you are.” The police chief didn’t move. The ranger kept his gun pointed at the police chief as he and Marshall got into the car and drove away.
Marshall’s visit resulted in nationwide publicity, which in turn put enormous pressure on the Dallas courthouse. The result was that within a few weeks of Marshall’s arrival, a Black man, W.L. Dickson, was empaneled on a jury. Governor Allred assigned a ranger to protect Dickson.
By this time, Marshall was lead counsel for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and had established a legal defense fund.
On July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan, a civil rights activist, bought a Greyhound Bus ticket from the “colored” window at Haye’s Grocery Store in Glouster County, Virginia. She was heading home to Baltimore. She dutifully took a seat in the colored section. She had been feeling ill, so she was happy to have found a seat with a window. Next to her was a mother with a baby.
About an hour into the trip, the bus made a stop and a white couple boarded. The driver ordered Morgan and the mother next to her to give up their seats for the white couple. Morgan refused and encouraged the mother to do the same.
The bus driver pulled into the nearest town, Saluda, Virginia. The driver fetched an officer, who came to arrest Morgan. When the officer tried to drag her off the bus, she kicked him in the groin. She was charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s Jim Crow transit laws. She pleaded guilty to resisting arrest but refused to plead guilty to violating the Jim Crow laws.
She contacted Thurgood Marshall. He immediately saw the potential in the case, and agreed to represent her. Because Morgan was on an interstate bus, Marshall and Hastie argued that the bus was subject to United States federal law, and the U.S. Congress had never enacted segregation laws—so she couldn’t have been breaking any laws.
Morgan’s case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where Marshall and William Hastie argued the case and won.
It was an astonishing victory. The ruling was hard to enforce, so interstate buses, particularly in the South continued to segregate African Americans, but Marshall and the entire NAACP legal team basked in their success.
Meanwhile, the “equalization” strategy in schools was paying off. In Virginia, Marshall’s colleague and former classmate Oliver Hill had filed lawsuits all over the state attacking unequal facilities. Hill followed Thurgood’s lead, first filing suits demanding equal pay for African American teachers, then filing suits showing that the school facilities were unequal.
They won court orders against the school districts, but the school boards and local communities insisted they could not obey the orders because they were short of funds. One day Spottswood Robinson, an NAACP lawyer, was in Cumberland County, Virginia, trying to get the school district to replace tar paper shack classrooms for African American children, when a school board official said, “We’d like to help you fellas, but you’re pushing too fast, and we just don’t have enough money.” Mr. Robinson said, “Look, I know how you could do it overnight—all you have to do is let the colored kids into Cumberland High School.” A school board member then jumped to his feet and shouted, “The first little colored son of a bitch that comes down the road to set foot in that school, I’ll take my shotgun and blow his brains out.”
The NAACP’s widely publicized cases gave courage to African American communities. In Clarendon County, South Carolina, a gutsy teacher, Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine, singlehandedly took on the all-white school board. The white students had a school bus. The African American students didn’t. Some children had to ford a river and walk nine miles to the school house. When one child nearly drowned trying to cross the river to get to school, DeLaine asked the school board for a bus for the African American children. The chairman of the school board said, “We ain’t got no money to buy a bus for your n— children.”
There was money, though, to buy a bus for the white children. So DeLaine asked the NAACP to help him get a school bus. Thurgood Marshall told DeLaine that they would take the case if he could find twenty parents willing to sue to equalize all facilities: school buildings, books, teachers’ salaries, etc.
It took DeLaine eight months to persuade twenty parents to sign up to be plaintiffs. An NAACP lawyer, Robert Carter, paid a visit to South Carolina to make sure the plaintiffs understood the danger. They did. So the NAACP filed the suit in federal court, demanding equal facilities for the African American students of Clarendon County.
The lawsuit created an uproar. The audacity of African Americans suing the county and white school board unleashed a torrent of hate. DeLaine’s house was burned to the ground while the Clarendon County fire department stood and watched. DeLaine was fired from his teaching position. His wife, two sisters, and niece were also fired from their jobs. The church where he preached was set on fire. While his church was burning, he shot back. He didn’t injure anyone, but he was charged with felonious assault with a deadly weapon. DeLaine left the state and became a fugitive from justice.
Furious Clarendon County whites also went after the plaintiffs. Harry Briggs, the lead plaintiff, was fired from his job as a gas station attendant. Another plaintiff had his loans called in by the local bank. A small farmer needs loans to survive. Because he didn’t have the money to rent harvest machinery, many of his crops rotted in the field.
Marshall himself traveled to South Carolina to make sure the residents of Clarendon County were not about to give up. The African American community was determined, so the lawsuit against Clarendon County moved forward. The trial was set for May 1951, in Charleston, South Carolina.
While the Clarendon County case was working its way through the courts, Marshall was called back to Texas. LuLu White, the director of the Texas offices of the NAACP branch, had recently given a stirring sermon pleading for someone to stand up and challenge the segregation policies of the University of Texas Law School. Hemen Sweatt, a thirty-three-year-old graduate of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, stood up. His voice was trembling when he said he was willing to go through with it.
So Sweatt applied for admission to the University of Texas School of Law. When he was denied admission because of his race, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the university. The presiding judge gave the state six months to establish an educational institution for African Americans. Texas rapidly created a law school called the Texas State University for Negroes. At the end of six months, the school had five professors, a library of 16,500 books, and a practice court. The University of Texas School of Law for whites had 16 full-time professors and a library of 65,000 books.
When the case went back to court, Marshall highlighted the differences between the two schools. He also brought law professors from around the country to testify that the new law school for African Americans could not possibly provide the same education as the all-white law school. Part of the experience of attending law school is the chance to meet future lawyers and professors who also practice law and to become acquainted with the legal community in the state.
The eleven years since Marshall had filed his lawsuit for Donald Murray against the University of Maryland School of Law had brought changes. White students from the University of Texas crowded into the courtroom to hear the arguments. One white student planted himself in the “colored only” section of the court. A court bailiff told him to move. He refused unless a Black person told him to get out. By the end of the trial, African Americans and whites were seated together all over the courtroom.
The NAACP lost. The court ruled that the two schools provided substantially equal education. Marshall appealed to a higher court in Texas and lost again. The Texas appellate court said that the separate-but-equal standard was satisfied by the all-African-American law school.
Marshall and his legal team immediately began working on their appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Marshall and Houston, however, were careful not to go that far. They’d been studying each of the justices and their views. They knew they didn’t yet have a majority to overturn Plessy, and the last thing they wanted was the Supreme Court to affirm the ruling in Plessy, which would make it harder to overturn later. So they simply asked for Sweatt to be admitted to the University of Texas on the grounds that a separate law school could not provide Sweatt with a legal education equivalent to the University of Texas School of Law.
Daniel Price, the attorney general of Texas who defended the university’s segregation policies, understood very well what the NAACP was really after. Price told the justices of the Supreme Court that if the University of Texas School of Law was forced to admit Sweatt, African Americans would have to be admitted to public swimming pools, elementary schools, and hospitals. “All we ask in the South,” he said, “is the opportunity to take care of this matter and work it out [ourselves].”
The US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Sweatt’s case against the University of Texas on June 5, 1950. The US Supreme Court held that the new segregated law school did not provide an education equal to the more established University of Texas School of Law. The Supreme Court, therefore, ordered the University of Texas School of Law to admit Heman Sweatt.
The NAACP headquarters in New York erupted in celebration. Marshall, jubilant, called Sweatt to tell him the news. “We won the big one,” he said.
The case was a major step forward: Under this ruling, it was basically impossible for a segregated graduate school, law school, or medical school to provide an education equal to the more established white school. The same would surely hold true for colleges, and in fact, any school.
Marshall knew the time had come to realize Charles Houston’s long-cherished dream. It was time to put decades of work on the line and go after Plessy v. Ferguson. He worried about whether the time was right, but the Sweatt decision gave him the tools to go after segregation itself. The rule in Sweatt—that a segregated law school could never be equal to a law school for whites—opened the door to a wider challenge: Going after segregation itself by arguing that separate can never be equal.
Thurgood Marshall and his legal team decided to begin their attack on Plessy v. Fergusson with the South Carolina case that had started out as a simple request for a school bus, even though Clarendon County was an unlikely place to demand full integration. Segregation was fully entrenched in South Carolina. Clarendon County was located less than one hundred miles from Fort Sumter, where, seventy-nine years earlier, a band of rebels had fired on federal troops and ignited the Civil War. There was no hope of budging the white population. But the Clarendon County case was perfect for appeal. The facts were indisputable, the law was clear, and the plaintiffs—hardened and angry by the violence they’d suffered—were ready to go the full distance.
On the morning of April 21, 1951, Oliver Hill, Marshall’s colleague, was planning to drive to South Carolina to work on the Clarendon County case when his phone rang. The caller was a sixteen-year-old girl named Barbara Johns. She told Hill that she and her classmates had walked out of their segregated high school in Farmville, Virginia, in protest of the unequal conditions. She explained that she and her classmates at the all-black Moton High School were tired of going to school in tar paper shacks. She wanted the NAACP lawyers to come to Farmville to help her and her classmates get a new high school equal to the high school for whites.
Hill told her to call off her protest and return to class. When she insisted, he told her she could write him a letter. The next day, he received a neatly typed letter signed by two students, Barbara Johns, and Carrie Stokes. The youngsters explained again that they were on strike until they could get a better school. “You know that this is a very serious matter,” the girls wrote, “because we are out of school, there are seniors to be graduated and it can’t be done by staying at home. Please, we beg you to come down at the first of this week . . .”
Farmville was located in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Hill figured that he and Spottswood could make a detour and visit Farmville on their way to South Carolina. He contacted the local NAACP point man in Farmville, Reverend L. Francis Griffith, and arranged to meet with the students on Wednesday morning.
When Hill and Spottswood arrived on Wednesday, the students were waiting for them in the basement auditorium of Reverend Griffith’s church. Spottswood and Hill stood in front of the group and explained that the NAACP was no longer filing lawsuits demanding equal facilities. From then on, the NAACP would only file a lawsuit demanding full integration. If the African American community of Farmville wanted the NAACP to file a lawsuit for integration, the NAACP would consider it—but only if the students’ parents were solidly behind them and only if they all understood the dangers.
Hill and Spottswood had the same opinion: Farmville was a rural backwater. They believed it unlikely that the Farmville parents would get behind a lawsuit for full integration. They left that morning, believing they’d heard the last from the Moton students.
Two weeks later, Lester Banks, executive secretary of the Virginia NAACP office, reported that the Farmville students had gotten their parents to agree to sue Prince Edward County for full integration. Even after a cross was burned on the Moton High School grounds, the African American community stood firm. So on May 7, the NAACP filed a petition with the Prince Edward school board demanding that the Moton students be admitted to the all-white Farmville High School. As everyone expected, the board rejected the petition. So, on Monday, May 23, 1951, the Virginia office of the NAACP filed a lawsuit in Prince Edward County demanding full integration of the county’s public schools.
The Clarendon County trial was held in May of 1951. More than five hundred people came to watch. The courtroom had a maximum capacity of seventy-five, so most stood outside, straining to hear. “They came in their jalopy cars and their overalls, and they had this little section of the court where they could go. All they wanted to do—if they could—was just touch him, just touch him, Lawyer Marshall, as if he were a god. These were poor people who had come miles to be there.”
The district court found the facilities grossly unequal and ordered Clarendon County to provide equal facilities for African American children. The district court ignored the broader question of whether segregation itself was illegal. This didn’t surprise Marshall. District courts were bound to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court. Only the United States Supreme Court could overrule Plessy v. Fergusson.
Meanwhile, the Prince Edward County plaintiffs lost their case in district court. The court found that Moton High School was equal to Farmville High School, even though Farmville High had a modern building, a gym, a cafeteria, and modern equipment. Because of overcrowding, Moton students attended class in leaky shacks made of tarpaper and wood.
By the time the NAACP filed its appeals to the Supreme Court for both the South Carolina and Virginia cases, they were able to join those two cases with two other related cases from Kansas and Washington, D.C. The plaintiffs were listed alphabetically, which put the father of Kansas student Linda Brown first. The consolidated cases were called Brown v. Board of Education. This time the NAACP was asking for full integration and an end to Plessy v. Ferguson.
When the Supreme Court decided to hear Brown v. Board of Education, criticism and anger poured in from all sides. A Pittsburgh Courier columnist wrote that Marshall was leading everyone over a cliff: Decisions such as Sweatt v. Painter put African Americans on a clear road to equal education. Now he was risking it all by trying to force all communities to integrate. People predicted doom. What would happen to all the African American teachers? It was unthinkable—people argued—that whites would allow African Americans to teach their students. All the Black teachers and principals would be out of a job. Marshall ignored the criticism. He kept his head down and focused on preparing his legal briefs.
He called together the brightest legal minds to discuss every possible angle. There were heated disagreements about the best arguments and responses. When arguments erupted, Marshall often lightened the mood by cracking a joke. “Thurgood had an incredible gift,” said one of his assistants. “He’d have his feet up on the table, with all these learned minds around him, in awe of him. He’d make them feel at home. He would pull out from other people their thinking, and he synthesized it and made it his.”
On the morning of December 9, 1952, hundreds of people stood in line before the United States Supreme Court, hoping to hear the arguments. Some had been there all night. When Marshall and Davis took their places at the podiums, the chamber was packed.
Marshall was shocked when Justice Frankfurter, who he thought would be sympathetic to his arguments, opened by shooting questions at him, asking questions like whether Marshall would object to a plan that segregated based on eye color. “No sir,” Marshall responded, “because blue-eyed people in the United States never had the badge of slavery which was perpetuated in the statutes.” The barrage of questions, though, rattled him. Later he said, “Frankfurter was a smart aleck, you know.”
John W. Davis, the lawyer arguing in favor of segregation, urged the court not to overturn decades of precedent. His voice was well-modulated and respectful as he insisted that the Fourteenth Amendment was never intended to intrude on the rights of local communities to manage their own educational programs. He argued that the local communities were complying with the order that they provide equal facilities. He dismissed the social science evidence offered by Marshall as of interest to legislatures as they designed their laws but had no place in constitutional arguments. “We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit,” he said, “an infinitely more capable and rounded personality, by putting children where they are wanted and where they are happy and inspired than in thrusting them into the hells where they are ridiculed and hated.”
Each group of plaintiffs had a chance to present arguments. Marshall had to rebut each of them. The questioning lasted five exhausting days.
Months passed without a decision. Then on June 8, 1953, the Supreme Court issued questions to the lawyers on all sides, including:
Preparing the answers took months and ran up $40,000 in expenses to the NAACP. The final brief was 256 pages. The NAACP’s overarching argument was that upholding school segregation made sense only if the Court concluded that Black Americans were inferior to white Americans.
The second round of arguments was scheduled for December 8, 1953, and continued for two days. Again the courtroom was packed. At 2:00 on December 10, after the closing remarks, the court adjourned.
Again, months passed. On Sunday, May 16, 1954, Marshall was in Mobile, Alabama, on a speaking tour to raise money for the Legal Defense Fund. He was expected in Los Angeles the following morning.
He received a phone call. Later, he refused to name the caller. The person told him that he might want to be at the Supreme Court the following day. Marshall canceled his event in Los Angeles, went to the airport, and caught the next flight to Washington, D.C.
Marshall and his legal team sat in the formal chambers facing the nine justices. The chamber was crowded and cackled with tension.
Chief Justice Earl Warren outlined the basic facts of the cases, then he reviewed the legal questions. Finally, he said, “We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
They’d won what was perhaps the most important Supreme Court case in American history.
Immediately people caught the drift. If segregation is illegal in schools, what about buses, restaurants, and lunch counters? What about drinking fountains? It was clear the country was about to undergo a major change.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. She was arrested and charged with violating the city’s bus ordinances.
Marshall received a phone call from a colleague in the Montgomery, Alabama branch of the NAACP. His colleague, E.D. Nixon, asked Marshall to represent a group that was planning to boycott the city’s segregated buses. Nixon anticipated that the boycott would last about a day. Marshall agreed to offer the group legal representation.
Marshall left for a two-week vacation in the Caribbean. When he returned, he was stunned to learn that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still going on—and that it was grabbing headlines all over the country.
“All of a sudden,” Marshall said, “this preacher started jumping out of there. We’d never heard of him before. I knew his father in Atlanta, but I’d never heard of him until then.” The preacher—a brilliant and mesmerizing speaker—was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was then twenty-seven years old.
Marshall took the Montgomery bus case to court. He and his legal team relied on the precedent they’d established in two decades of case law and Brown v. Board of Education. They won. The court banned segregated busing in Montgomery. The city, though, refused to integrate its buses until the appeals were completed—so the boycott continued as the NAACP prepared its appeal.
On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s appeal, allowing the lower court decision to stand. The city of Montgomery now had no choice but to allow Black Americans to sit where they wished on buses. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first passenger to ride an integrated city bus.
The newspapers gave Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the protesters credit for desegregating Montgomery’s buses. Marshall felt resentful and exhausted: The lawyers who did the painstaking work over decades to make integration possible were forgotten.
* * *
In 1967, LBJ appointed Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice. Marshall lived long enough to watch the backlash gather momentum. He watched as an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court appeared determined to unravel his life’s work.
Today we are still riding the backlash from Brown v Board of Education.
* * *
Before writing The Making of America series, I imagined the arc of history as an upward slope as more people come to be included in “we the people.” As we push forward, we make positive changes. I imagined the graph of history looked like this:
I understood that others saw American history differently: They look back longingly to our nation’s founding, when, in their view, things were better. As the country becomes more complex (and diverse) they think something essential is being lost. For them, American history is a downward slope:
Writing The Making of America taught me that, in fact, there are no slopes. The graph looks like this:
Now I understand that each bit of progress brings an angry backlash. The Civil War Amendments pushed us forward. Racial segregation pushed us back—but not all the way back. Brown v. Board of Education pushed us forward. The backlash that has been gaining momentum ever since is pushing us back—but not all the way back.
The problem with viewing history as an upward slope is that each time there is a setback, there is a tendency to panic.
From studying history, I understand that people who love hierarchy and don’t believe equality is possible will always be with us. They’ve been with us since the start of the nation and they’re not going away. We push forward, and the reactionaries push backward. We build agencies, we create rules for fairness, and they hate the agencies and break the rules.
The struggle never ends unless we give up. Then they win.
In memory of Thurgood Marshall, we must all become social engineers.