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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

September 26, 2017: Early Civil Rights Histories: Thurgood Marshall

[September 25th marks the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine integrating the city’s all-white Central High School. So this week, after a special post on Little Rock and race, I’ll focus on a few other early Civil Rights moments, histories, and figures.]
On three important early cases won by the pioneering NAACP lawyer (and subject of a forthcoming biopic starring Chadwick Boseman and focused on this early period in his life):
1)      Murray v. Pearson (1935): Nearly 20 years before his contributions to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision (on which more tomorrow), Marshall was the lead attorney for Donald Gaines Murray, an African American student who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland School of Law because of his race. Murray’s suit against the school and its president Raymond Pearson was initiated by Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest black fraternity and one to which both Murray and Marshall belonged, and the 27 year old Marshall, just two years removed from his own law school graduation (from Howard University School of Law) and not yet working full-time for the NAACP, took on and won this historic case (alongside his mentor, Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston). Marshall’s argument that “what’s at stake here is more than the rights of my client. It’s the moral commitment stated in our country’s creed” would prove a guiding principle for many subsequent Civil Rights litigations and activisms.
2)      Chambers v. Florida (1940): Marshall joined the NAACP’s national staff in 1936, and four years later (still only 32) he argued and won his first Supreme Court case for them. Four African American men had been convicted of murdering an elderly white man in Florida’s Broward County, and the convictions (like many in the era) had been obtained using statements produced by questionable law enforcement tactics (such as holding the men without access to a lawyer for a week, isolating them from one another and questioning them at random and in front of large groups of officers and community members, and not informing them of their right to remain silent). While the unanimous Supreme Court decision in the men’s favor was thus partly an early Civil Rights victory (as famous cases like that of the Scottsboro Boys demonstrate, such practices were particularly and consistently used with accused people of color), it was also a broader victory for civil liberties, and an important and influential predecessor of the court’s landmark decision for the rights of the accused in Miranda v. Arizona (1966).
3)      Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): Those and other early cases helped move Marshall, the NAACP, and the nation toward Brown and the Civil Rights Movement, but it was in the post-war era that those efforts truly began to ramp up. One of the first Supreme Court victories in that post-war period was in Shelley v. Kraemer, in which two different African American families (the Shelleys of St. Louis and the McGhees of Detroit, who were Marshall’s specific clients in this joint action) challenged racial covenants through which neighborhood associations (all over the nation) sought to keep them from buying homes. Although the Court did not yet rule that such covenants themselves were unconstitutional (that would take the kinds of anti-discrimination protections won in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968), its decision that the state could not in any way help enforce such racial covenants was a key stepping stone toward those future protections. One more striking victory for one of the nation’s most influential legal legends.
Next Civil Rights post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or figures you’d highlight?

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