Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King on civil disobedience and the rule of law.

Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall shared a fraternity, but differed on tactics to bring about social change.

Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King were unquestionably two titans of the modern civil rights movement, yet they had profound differences in their views of civil disobedience and the role of law.

For more than two decades before King emerged as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, Marshall risked his life and gradually chipped away at the “separate but equal” doctrine articulated in the notorious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case and quickly codified from practice into law in large parts of the country.

This legal effort, which initially took on the “equal” part of segregation before eventually delivering a frontal and ultimately successful assault on the very philosophy, was led by Marshall and other members of the NAACP’s legal team.

It culminated in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, read  on May 17, 1954 for a unanimous court by newly installed Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Marshall’s ceaseless work on this and related legal struggles constitutes the focus of Marshalling Justice, a collection of his letters during much of that time edited by Michael Long, and about which I have already written a couple of posts.

This work, and his enormously successful record before the Supreme Court-he won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the nation’s top justices-led William Brennan, the justice with whom Marshall was closest, to declare after Marshall’s death that no one had done more in the history of the nation to advance civil rights.

With the deepest respect for Justice Brennan, some may disagree and instead cite Dr. King.

Starting from his leadership in Montgomery, King turned to applying the legal doctrine Marshall had worked so hard to forge and eradicating the application of legal segregation in schools, buses and public facilities.

It was often brutal work.

King lived every day under the threat of death, and a number of people have written and talked about how he felt strongly his death would come in Memphis, where he had gone to support the sanitation workers’ “I am a man” campaign for economic justice.

Throughout King’s career, he used and wrote extensively about the doctrine of nonviolent struggle.   Based in the United States, and influenced by the campaigns led in India by Gandhi, the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence asserted that there are manmade and universal laws.  When the laws made by people violate the universal laws, it is legitimate and right to break them, especially if one does so in a nonviolent way that brings out the injustice but does not resort to violence to do so.

Unsurprisingly, Marshall and King did not have a shared appreciation of, and commitment to, nonviolence and the accompanying willingness to break laws as a means of struggle.

In the final section of Marshalling Justice, which I read last night, Marshall both seems initially more concerned in one letter with the potential infiltration by communists of the NAACP than he does with the rising movement in Montgomery (At one point he offers a disparaging comment about “all that walking” with relatively little results.).  In other documents, while Marshall writes with approval about King and the boycott’s results, he does make it clear that he views with displeasure the movement’s attitude toward breaking laws.

The differences went beyond the views of the laws, of course.

Both men held profoundly different views of how social change happens.  For Marshall, an elite cadre of lawyers would work on behalf of the people who were oppressed by an unjust system to change that system.  On the other hand, King had a more populist view of the people directly affected participating in the efforts for social change.

King’s later emphasis on local people toiling away before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s members would come in and try to draw media attention to the injustice later drew criticism from the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who believed in staying in a more democratic and less charismatic vision of change, and from Malcolm X, who ridiculed the idea of turning the other cheek to people who would kill you.

What do you think?  Is there one best way to achieve social change?  What roles should people play?

On a day where we honor the memory of Dr. King, I look forward to reading your opinions.

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2 responses to “Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King on civil disobedience and the rule of law.

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’d never thought of juxtaposing their lives in this way.

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