In the 1930s, African Americans in Texas were not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary. The Democrats had a stranglehold on state politics, so the exclusion effectively deprived blacks of the franchise. A 1923 statute had made the ban explicit; when the Supreme Court struck down the law in 1927, slippery local officials began turning away black voters on their own authority, reasoning that the Court had not specifically forbidden that. The editor of the Austin Statesman cheered, describing “the Texas negro” as “popular in his place—that of hewer of wood and drawer of water.” After decades of voter suppression, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund rolled up his sleeves and got out his briefcase. “There is only one way to handle that bunch,” he wrote to a black newspaper editor in 1940, “and that is to take them into court. This we must do.”
That was Marshall’s style, fearless and indefatigable. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the moral and spiritual leader of the civil-rights movement, Marshall was its general, and he wanted results. Instead of making speeches, he made law. As the NAACP’s top attorney from 1938 to 1961, he argued 32 civil-rights cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29—among them Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated Texas’s white primary. Other landmark victories included Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which outlawed racially restrictive real-estate covenants; Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which integrated the University of Texas’s law school; and, of course, Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine.
Marshall had seen segregation firsthand, growing up in Baltimore. His father had worked as a railroad porter and a country-club steward. Soon after graduating first in his class from Howard University’s law school, Marshall marched into the South to represent criminal defendants, soldiers, and laborers in jury trials. He coordinated the NAACP’s national legal strategy in countless lawsuits and hounded the FBI to prevent or respond to racial violence. When he learned of a racist product on the shelf, like Whitman’s Pickaninny Peppermints, Marshall fired off a note to its manufacturer; he answered bigoted newspaper stories with letters to the editor. More than once, he almost got himself killed.