Tag Archives: Thurgood Marshall

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.

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Spending More Time with Difference Maker Thurgood Marshall

I wrote the other day about making it about one-third of the way through Marshalling Justice, Michael Long’s edited collection of letters by Thurgood Marshall.

The book starts in the 1930s, after Marshall had graduated from Howard Law School, and continues through the landmark school desegregation decision he argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court.

I spent more time with Marshall and his letters this morning and can say one thing with certainty.

The man had guts.

Marshall’s courage, coupled with his fierce intelligence and sense of moral outrage, pulse through each of the pages.  He endured endless indignities and the prospect of severe physical danger, including nearly being lynched, in the tireless service of his ideals of equality for all people and his relentless opposition to legalized segregation.

As I wrote before, Marshall also spoke out with ferocity against those within the movement who he felt were either too sentimental or self-serving, depending on the situation.

This part of the book also shows the toll the enormous workload-Marshall traveled all over the country to represent people who had been unfairly treated, abused or court martialed- and Marshall’s lifestyle of fatty food, endless work and heavy whiskey consumption took on him.  At one point he essentially had a physical breakdown and had to recuperate for a month.

The book also shows the reign of terror that existed in large parts of the country.  One woman’s story told about her being forced to leave her Texas home, where she was caring for elderly parents, because of a dispute with a neighbor about whether she could keep her cattle in a yard (Although she did in fact have this permission, the woman left to preserve her life, nevertheless.).

These anecdotes underscore the severity of the obstacles Marshall faced and the personal and professional resources he brought to bear on them.

It’s very inspiring stuff, and I hope the book receives as wide an audience as possible.

In the meantime, I look forward to finishing it soon.

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.

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Daley’s decision, Thurgood Marshall biography

The earthy Thurgood Marshall probably would have words about Richard M. Daley's segregated Chicago.

In the three days since Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rocked the local political establishment by announcing that he will not seek an unprecedented seventh term, there have been no shortage of effusive tributes to the now outgoing mayor.

From Clarence Page to the Sun-Times editorial board have flowed panegyrics about Daley’s devotion to his city and his effectiveness as “Da Mayor.”

Far less has been written about an aspect of Chicago life that remains largely unchanged 21 years after he first assumed the much-coveted position:

The racial segregation.

Chicago remains among one of top five most segregated cities in America, despite the infusion of hundreds of thousands of Latino migrants during the past two decades.

Large swaths of Chicago-enter the South and West Side-are predominantly, if not almost exclusively, African American, while large parts of the Northwest Side are nearly lily-white.

This of course has implications for the city’s schools, which at this point have about one in seven white students.  Long time educational critic Jonathan Kozol writes about the trend toward continued and even intensified segregation in Shame of the Nation.

At one point in the book, Kozol quotes legendary activist and Congressman John Lewis about saying that the celebration of the landmark Brown v. Board decision anniversaries have become just that-a commemoration of an historic event that has little, if anything, to do with lived reality for much of the nation’s residents.

The late, great Thurgood Marshall was one of the masterminds and driving forces behind the 25-year assault on legalized segregation that culminated in the five cases that eventually were called Brown v. Board of Education.

The driven, ruthless, earthy and iconoclastic Marshall is the subject of Michael Davis and Hunter Clark’s Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench.

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Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes


Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

As surprising at it may seem, Richard Kluger’s ability to weave a dizzying array of characters, laws, lawsuits, scientific developments and historical events is not the most noteworthy aspect of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.

It’s his outrage.

Kluger’s visceral distaste for the actions tobacco executives took to develop, aggressively and relentlessly market, and actively conceal the negative health consequences of, their product pulses throughout his 763-page tome.

The outrage surfaces in his selection of information, in comments that he drops in throughout the book, even until its final sentence.  When discussing the framework for a settlement with the tobacco companies that would forestall future litigation, Kluger writes:

“Such a rational and civilized remedy, though, is probably too much to hope for as slayer of an incubus that has defied all reason, thrived on greed and folly, and driven poor mortals to grasp onto it for succor in a fashion their Maker never designed their bodies to long endure.” 

I am no psychiatrist, and I cannot help but wonder if Kluger’s frustration with political inaction, the companies’ deliberate evasion of responsibility and continued expansion globally both propelled him to write the book and is part of tinges the work with an edge that at times seems bitter. 

While I applaud his passion, and agree with his analysis, the anti smoking perspective at times detracted from my pleasure in reading this remarkable work that deserved the lofty recognition it received and unquestionably put a large marker in the road for others like Allan Brandt to follow in his book, The Cigarette Century (Brandt opens the acknowledgments of his book by crediting Kluger and his work.). 

I recently wrote about The Cigarette Century-you can also see Brandt spar with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show-and previously had read Kluger’s Simple Justice, the story of the quarter-century long battle of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn the legal segregation that was authorized in Plessy v. Ferguson.  

Simple Justice ranks up with Common Ground as among my favorite non-fiction books of all time, so I brought very high expectations into my reading of Ashes to Ashes.

To a large degree, they were met.

Kluger opens the book with a description of the tobacco plant and its use throughout the world before starting to focus his attention on the American South, the region that has supplied the vast majority of tobacco to the rest of the nation. 

Characters like James Buchanan Duke, the president of American Tobacco Company, the giant that was eventually disbanded under antitrust legislation in 1911, fill the early pages.  

As the title suggests, Kluger also devotes extensive time to the gradual ascension and ultimate triumph of Philip Morris.  He writes at length about each of the companies’ top executives starting with the early to middle part of the century.  

Like Brandt, Kluger does not only focus on tobacco leaders’ duplicity, even though that is very well represented in both books.  Rather, Kluger’s disappointment in the medical establishment, in which many doctors smoked for years and researchers producing evidence of smoking’s harm were shunned, in politicians’ inaction and in the American Cancer Society’s timid actions are palpable. 

Kluger does write about unlikely sources of anti smoking activism, such as Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was preceded years earlier by Julius Richmond, one of my father’s professional acquaintances.  Dad and I spoke yesterday how the seeming advance that happened during Richmond’s tenure of putting warning labels on cigarettes was then used by the industry for decades to thwart liability lawsuits. 

Kluger also features myth puncturing researchers and crusading lawyers like Mark Edell and Northeastern University’s Richard Daynard.

As his final sentence implies, Kluger does not hold the individuals who use and become addicted to the cigarettes as fully accountable for their actions.  While I understand his perspective, I do not completely agree with it. 

In the end, this is a story of the companies’, rather than the activists’, victory.   Published in 1996, two years before the landmark settlement with Attorneys Generals throughout the country, Ashes to Ashes is an impressive and highly worthwhile book, even if the tone at times can interfere just slightly with the reader’s pleasure. 

I will seek to contact Kluger, now in his 76th year, and find out his thoughts about the industry’s current state.

R.I.P., John Hope Franklin

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

On Wednesday, groundbreaking historian John Hope Franklin took his last breath.

On January 15, a birthday he shared with legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King,  Jr., he had turned 94 years old.

Franklin tells the story of his remarkable  life, albeit in a typically understated fashion, in Mirror To America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

This clearly written and insightful book starts with Franklin’s humble beginnings in an all-black community in Oklahoma, where he endured humiliating experiences because of his race.  Mirror to America continues hrough his education at Fisk University, his doctoral work at Harvard University and his long, distinguished and acclaimed career as an historian.

Mirror to America makes it clear that Franklin took seriously his role as historian and saw as part of his professional responsibility the importance of including the history of black people in America as a central, rather than peripheral part of the American story.

From Slavery to Freedom is his most well known and widely circulated book. 

First published in 1947, the work was repeatedly updated in the following six decades.  By some estimates it had sold at least three million copies.  The book helped contribute to the ultimately successful efforts of Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn segregation through the collection of cases known as Brown v. Board of Education.

In addition to his scholarship, Franklin broke color barriers as an adminstrator, too.   He was the first black department chair at predominantly white Brooklyn College-a fact which inspired one of his mentees, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis-and the first black president of the American Historical Association

He remained civically engaged until his final days, endorsing Barack Obama for President in 2008. 

Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 1995.  The nation is diminished by his loss but greatly enhanced by his socially committed and committed life.

And the winner is …

Davud Russell tames more than animals. He won the Black History Month Quiz, too.

David Russell tames more than animals. He won the Black History Month Quiz, too.

David Russell!!!!

David took first prize in the Black History Month Quiz.

For his victory, David will get one of the following:

a. A Kombucha drink of his choice.

b. A beer of his choice.

The prize is redeemable within a year at any location in which David and I are in the same place!

Congratulations, David!   And well done to Bob Yovovich, who earned honorable mention!

Here are the answers:

  1. Who founded Black History Month? Carter G. Woodson.
  2. Who was the first African American to receive a PhD. from Harvard University? W.E.B. DuBois
  3. Name two major events in black history that occurred on August 28. 1963. March on Washington, Obama receives the Democratic nomination in 2008, and Emmett Till’s murder.
  4. Who was the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature? Toni Morrison.
  5. Who was Chicago’s first black mayor?  Whom did he defeat in the general election?  What was the voter turnout percentage in the general election? Harold Washington, Bernard Epton, 79 percent.
  6. Which recently deceased Chicago author was a member of the black and gay lesbian writer Halls of Fame? Studs Terkel
  7. How many NBA championships have the Chicago Bulls won?  Name two black players who were on all of the championship teams. 6 championships. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
  8. Which famous black abolitionist was born Isabella Baumfree? What is her most famous phrase? Sojourner Truth. “Ain’t I a woman?”
  9. Who was born 200 years ago yesterday?  Why is his birthday significant in terms of black history?  Abraham Lincoln. He signed the 13th Amendment.
  10. Name three black editors and publishers of The Chicago Reporter. Alden Loury, Laura Washington, Alysia Tate.
  11. Who was the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice? What is his most famous case? How many times did he argue in front of the Supreme Court?  How many times did he win? Thurgood Marshall. Brown v. Board of Education. 32. 29.
  12. Which Chicago female poet became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950?  Gwendolyn Brooks.
  13. Name five African Americans who have won Academy Awards for either best actor or best actress. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Hattie McDaniel, Lou Gossett, Jr., Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson.
  14. What is the one-drop rule and why is it significant for black people in American history? One drop of “black blood” meant that the person was considered black.  It was used as the basis for enforcing segregation’s laws.
  15. True or false: The first black people to come to America were slaves. False. They were indentured servants.
  16. Name two of the three places in the U.S. Constitution where slavery is included but not mentioned by name. Extra credit: Name all three places. 3/5ths clause. Non-importation of slaves after 1808. Fugitive Slave Clause.
  17. Which three post-Civil War Amendments all dealt with African Americans?  What did they say? Amendments 13, 14, and 15.  Amendnent 13 deal with freeing slaves.  Amendment 14 discussed equal protection under the law. Amendment 15 addressed voting rights for black men.
  18. Who was able to vote first in U.S. elections: black women or Native Americans? Black women. Native Americans did not get the right to vote in national elections until 1924.
  19. Which black female talk show host became the first black woman billionaire?  What year did that first happen? Oprah Winfrey in 2004.
  20. What was the inspiration for Jay-Z’s name?  Who is his wife?  The subway lines in Brooklyn.  Beyonce Knowles.