Thurgood Marshall: The Constitution Had to Be 'Corrected'

A rare interview with the nation's first African American Supreme Court justice

This article is the third in a series featuring clips from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which is working to digitize television and radio pieces so that they may be preserved for years to come. For more about the project, see our introduction to the series, where you'll also find a handy list of all the series' pieces so far.

Updated, February 26: Unfortunately, due to an issue with the rights to this clip, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting had to remove the video from the Internet and it is no longer available. We regret that we can no longer include it in this piece.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave very, very few interviews in his lifetime. 

Marshall, biographer Charles Zelden explains, "felt that it was a conflict of interest for a sitting judge to speak out publicly on the issue that might come before the Court." 

But in 1987, Marshall broke his silence in a candid, one-hour interview with journalist Carl Rowan of WHUT (Howard University Television) in Washington, D.C. It is perhaps one of only two televised interviews he gave while on the Court (the only other, to my knowledge, is a 1990 conversation with ABC's Sam Donaldson, which does not seem to be available online).

The WHUT interview ran for an hour, and it has recently been digitized by the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. The digital files will be available on-site at WGBH in Boston and at the Library of Congress by the end of October of this year, and may someday be available online, if the legal rights can be cleared.

For now, the AAPB and WHUT have made a portion of it available to The Atlantic, a small hint of what must be a remarkable program in full.

According to Zelden, the clip is significant not only because of the rarity of a Marshall interview but because of the substance of the justice's comments as well. 

"This is one of the more direct statements made by Marshall on the limitations on the Constitution of 1787. He made similar points in his (in)famous 1987 speech on The Constitution as a Living Document but did not make such explicit reference to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution in that speech," Zelden said to me in an email.

"The beauty of public media is a historical record of someone’s unique personality, traits, opinion, and voice," Luma Haj, executive director of operations at WHUT, told me. And that's what's so wonderful about this small clip. There he is, Thurgood Marshall, flickering on my laptop screen, giving voice to the ideas that he held, the ideas with which he changed America.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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