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Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate

Early NAACP legal work

In 1936, Marshall moved to New York to work at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The civil rights groups had recently begun to operate a full-time legal office, which was run by his old dean, Charles Houston. While there, Marshall encountered many political figures and civil rights leaders:
1936 Thurgood Marshall NAACP

1936 Thurgood Marshall NAACP

A: At one time (W.E.B.) Du Bois’ office was right next to mine. I remembe that his whole room was fenced in with books that ran all the way around the room and we were always impressed by it of course. But I talked to the janitor of the building, he was there one day and I was saying something, and he said, you know that Dr. Du Bois and all those books he’s got in his room? I said yeah. I got to tell you one thing, I got to tell somebody, I’ll be goddamned if he’s read every one of ‘em. And he just walked off. I agree. I agree.

I thought Du Bois was a great guy until the time … and he really made a living out of it. He had a flat rate for everything. Use his name, be present, so much money. Be on the platform, so much more money. Write a speech, so much a minute. He made good money.

You didn’t talk to him because one day I told him, I said look Doc, your office and mine are side by side and you come in here this morning and I say good morning to you and you just walk right by.

He says, that’s one of my bad habits.

One of Marshall duties was to travel to courtrooms in the Deep South to represent black clients who were often the victims of racists police and judges. But this work also brought him face-to-face with these bitter segregationists:

A: In the ’40s, or the ’30s, the late ’30s. Well I was changing trains and I had about a two or three stopover and while I was waiting I got hungry and I saw a restaurant on there so I decided that if I got hungry enough I’d go over there and put my civil rights in my back pocket and go to the back door of the kitchen and see if I could buy a sandwich.

And while I was kibitzing myself to do that, this white man came up beside me in plain clothes, with a great big pistol in a case on his hip, and he said, Nigger boy, or something, what are you doing here? And I said well I’m waiting. And he said what did you say?

I said, sir, I’m waiting for the train to Louisiana. Shreveport.

And he said, well, there’s only one more train comes through here and that’s four o’clock and you’d better be on it because the sun is never going down on a live Nigger in this town.

And you know what? I wasn’t hungry anymore I wasn’t thinking about eating because it dawned on me he could just blow my head off and he wouldn’t even have to go to court.

 After one case in Tennessee, Marshall was nearly lynched for his work:

Q: You were defending Lloyd Kennedy and William Pillow after a race riot (in Columbia, Tennessee) and they were accused of shooting a cop.
A: That’s when they tried to lynch me. They followed us out of town. I was driving the car and three or four cars came up, police cars and state troopers, five or six cars, and pulled us over and said they had a search warrant. It was a dry county and they were going to search the car. I told them to help themselves. But we went along with them to make sure they put some liquor in there. I’m ahead of my story.

We first went down to Mink Slide [the black neighborhood in Columbia] on our way out to get a bottle of whiskey. The bootlegger said, I’m sorry, I haven’t got anything but vodka and whiskey. I just sold the last two bottles to the judge. They said they looked in there and they couldn’t find any liquor in the car so one of them said, do you permit us to search your person? We also said, hell, no, we don’t give you no permission to search us. He said well go ahead.

We started to drive off, we went a hundred yards or so and they pulled us over again because in the meantime I told [local NAACP attorney Z. Alexander] Looby it was Looby’s car I said Looby you’d better drive because you’ve got a Tennessee license, I don’t have a Tennessee license. Looby was driving and they pulled him over and they said you weren’t driving this car were you? Looby said, I’m not going to answer that. The guy behind me, where I was sitting in the back seat, I couldn’t see who it was but I heard what he said. This guy came back and said, weren’t you driving? I said the same answer he gave. So they wanted to see my license. He said you’re under arrested. I said for what? He said drunken driving. I said drunken driving? I haven’t had a drink in a couple of days. You’re drunk.

So they put me in a police car and they went back to Columbia. That’s the first time that they knew what was going on. He said he told Looby to go to Nashville and don’t follow them and then they drove toward Duck River. We didn’t know until afterwards that’s where the mob was waiting. Well Looby wouldn’t leave. He kept right on the tail of the car and they kept going back to tell him. So eventually they got a little meeting together and they said hell with it, we’ll take him back to town.

Got back to town and it was empty. They pulled up on this side of this busy street, main street, and they pointed up to the second floor, judges and the police, said see that officer …. we’ll be over there in a minute.

I said I’ll go where you go. You ain’t gonna shoot me in the back, we’ll go together. So we went together and we went to the justice of the peace who was a little short man, about 5foot4, elderly and about 60something. He said what’s up? And they said we got this Nigger for drunken driving. And he says to me, boy, you wanna take my test? I never had a drink in my life and I can smell a drink a mile off. You want to take a chance?

I said well sure I’ll take a chance.

He said blow your breath on me.

I blew it so hard he rocked.

That man hasn’t had a drink in 24 hours, he said, what the hell are you talking about.

I turned around to look and they were gone. They left, yes. By foot.

I ran down to Mink’s Slide and I told them what happened right quick and they said you’d better get out of here because they’re going to come down here. So I went down to Looby’s car and they put another drive in Looby’s car and went one way and another car went the other way and we went right straight down the road. And sure enough the mob was coming around when we let. So they followed Looby’s car which they’d hoped they would do. And incidentally, when they found out I wasn’t in it, they beat that driver bad enough that he was in the hospital for a week. That’s how bad they beat him. Not Looby, no. They didn’t catch us at all.

Q: Where’d you go from there?
A: To Nashville. Went to the place where I was staying and I knew I was safe in Nashville. I immediately called the Attorney General Tom Clark to tell him about it. When I told him I was arrested for drunk driving, Tom said, well were you drunk? I said no, but five minutes after I talk to you

 There were so many cases where black defendants appealed to Marshall for help that he set a very high standard for accepting any client. But one case in Florida during the 1950s caught his attention:

A: I’ve had cases, do you realize that for every case I took, I turned down a hundred? At least a hundred. As a practicing lawyer. I mean, I’ve got cases where a guy said, I was convicted solely because of my race. And you’d go look at the record and he’d got 26 witnesses [supporting him]. Goodbye. Goodbye. No, no, those I took, maybe, well take one, Walter Lee Irvin in upper Florida who was charged with raping a woman down there. And the sheriff, Willis McCall, did everything including shooting him and what he didn’t do to him wasn’t possible, he was just determined. And when I went down for the trial, a white man met me in the hallway and it was real tense, state troopers and everything. And he showed me his credentials from the governor’s staff, he was the governor’s confidential adviser, he said, I’m here at the wish of the governor and everything I say is approved by the governor, and the first thing is that you look out he said you’ll see each guy that’s got this kind of a pin on is a state trooper and wellarmed because they’re trying to get you. And I said, who, Willis McCall? And he said, no, the deputy is going to get you. And so go toward them, but not from them. I said, well, thank you, I appreciate that.

He said second, the judge and the governor have been on the telephone and if Irvin will plead guilty, he’ll give him a life sentence and he’ll be sure he won’t get the death penalty. I said, well, I can’t decide that, Irvin will have to decide it. Fine. So I went to Irvin and I said, look, your mother’s here. I know, is there anybody else, a relative, somebody you can depend on? He said he’d got an uncle. And I said, well tell him to come with me. So we went in the backroom and told him the story and he said, well he said you got the case reversed once and I said, yeah, but eventually they can’t find that … and odds are that they’ll convict you. And [name] the judge, I said he sure as hell will give you the death penalty, so it’s up to you.

He said well I guess I’ve got to make up my mind. So he went over and talked to his mother and his uncle and the three of them came back and he said, well I guess this is the only way out and I said, well, it’s up to you. He said, well, what do I have to do? I said, nothing, just stand up there and when they say are you guilty or not guilty, you say: I’m guilty. He said, what does that mean? That you raped that woman. He said, that I raped that whore? I didn’t and I’m not going to say so. Now I know damn well that man was innocent. I know damn well he was innocent.

So, to make a long story short, the jury went out, no, while the jury was going on, I looked at the whole jury face to face – all white, of course – and everyone had a Shriner pin on him. Well, Judge [Truman] Futch and I had been off the record discussing Masonic business with my 33rd degree ring and he only had a 32nd degree ring, I told him he was in the wrong bunch. And I went up while the jury was out and I said, Judge Futch, I’m quite serious about this, I’m going to make ‘em lose. Every one of those jurors has got a Shriners pin, did you notice that? He said, sure, I noticed it. And I said, did you also notice that the state’s attorney – three different times gave the Masonic distress signal to that jury? He said, yeah, as a matter of fact, it was four. I said, well, I’m going to make an objection. He said, I wouldn’t do it. And I said, why not? He said, there’s nothing to racial about that, he said, he does it ALL the time whether you’re white, black or green. He gives the distress signal all the time.

So a white man was there and he came up and he said, how long is the jury going to be out? And I said damned if I know, I can’t tell. He said, I can tell. I said how? He said you see that man over there just lit up a cigar? And I said, yeah. And he said, watch it. When he’s finished that cigar, the jury will come back. I said, what the hell you talking about? He said several of those jurors obviously are cigar smokers and they’re not going to waste that cigar. So after they’d decide the case, they’re going to finish the cigar before they come in. He stamped out his cigar. In comes the jury.

Now, Judge Futch, you know I told you when you went out that you could bring in three verdicts: guilty, not guilty or guilty with mercy. Right? You understand that? Now, when the jury gives its verdict, I don’t want a man to move in this room until the sheriff takes the defendant out. What happens if he’s found not guilty?

Q: What was the verdict?
A: Guilty. And I don’t know how long after that, but we got it commuted it to life.

Q: How did you feel?
A: I felt that, Irvin’s mother had me awake all night, every night. She had the most impressive face I’ve ever seen on a woman, real high cheekbones and a whole lot of red in that black, a whole lot of red, and lot of Indian. And she just had these piercing eyes and she told me not once, but four times, don’t you let my son die. I’m going to be stuck with that for life.

No, Willis McCall fought him in the newspapers, the governor, about why would he do such a thing. And the governor said, well if you just push me like that I think that the whole thing was a trumped up lie. McCall was the sheriff. The sheriff, the sonofabitch.

Q: This guy had been reversed on appeal before you came?
A: No, I reversed it.