Difference Maker Thurgood Marshall speaks through his letters

Thurgood Marshall's edited letters are the substance of this worthwhile book.

Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 82 a week from today.

The civil rights leader’s birthday has been a national holiday for a quarter century.  During this time a generation of schoolchildren have listened to his epic “I Have a Dream” speech and written countless essays on his non-violent contributions to the nation.

This acclaim is certainly well-deserved, and Professor Michael Long makes the following assertion in the beginning of his introductory essay to Marshalling Justice, a collection of Thurgood Marshall’s letters that he edited:

“The twentieth century saw the emergence of the two greatest civil-rights leaders in the history of the United States-Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

Commentators often state that the time was right for King to emerge as forcefully as he did, and king himself talked about the zeitgeist of history being far more important than his own role in galvanizing the civil rights movement.  But what many of us fail to note is that the time was right exactly because Marshall had already pushed the clock ahead, sometimes singlehandedly.  For twenty long years before King assumed leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Thurgood Marshall, the young NAACP attorney known to everyday blacks as “Mr. Civil Rights,” struggled day and night against racial discrimination and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, businesses, voting booths, courtrooms, and neighborhoods.”

Long’s book seeks to fill that void in understanding about the depth, range and time frame of Marshall’s actions toward social justice.  I am more than one third into the work and finding it enormously enjoyable, informative and stimulating.

Long organizes Marshall’s letters by time and by the topics identified in the last sentence of the excerpt above.

A consistent portrait emerges through the work, even as the subjects on which he writes vary widely.   Marshall’s intelligence, courage and unwavering commitment to social justice radiate throughout the pages.

The tone is not without variety, though.

Long includes a tender letter Marshall sent to his first wife from the road in the South, one of few such documents that exists.  He also shows his legendary salty side in a note to a person by talking down to a person who wrote unhappily about the lack of speed the NAACP demonstrated in responding to his complaint. Long also shows Marshall quite willing to take his community and its leaders to task, too, when he finds their actions lacking.

In the part of the book I have read thus far, these types of documents are by far in the minority.  The primary focus of the work, and of Marshall’s career, was in the grindingly slow, often dangerous trenches in the North and South of the United States as he and a dedicated band of colleagues worked to overturn the legal segregation that had been given federal sanction in the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson case.

That effort culminated in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case chronicled so masterfully in Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice and for which Marshall is most well known (A possible contender for this title could be his being the first African-American nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.).

I wrote last year about Michael Davis and Hunter Clark’s biography on Marshall: Marshall’s letters, carefully edited and thoughtfully introduced by Long, provide an intimate portrait of this remarkable difference maker in American history.

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