August 30, 2017 marked the 50 year anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. To celebrate the legacy of our first African-American Supreme Court justice, staff writer Matt Ford takes us back to the moment of Marshall’s confirmation.
Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation process was a national embarrassment. Mississippi’s James Eastland asked Marshall during his confirmation hearing if he was “prejudiced against the white people of the South.” North Carolina’s Sam Ervin warned that the civil-rights icon was a “constitutional iconoclast” unfit for the high court. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s archetypal segregationist, tried to humiliate Marshall by asking him arcane legal trivia. When Marshall admitted he couldn’t name the committee members who drafted the Fourteenth Amendment from memory, Thurmond called him a “stupid guy” on the Senate floor.
Other senators rebuked their Southern colleagues’ grandstanding and eventually approved Marshall’s historic nomination in a 69 to 11 vote. But one of his critics’ complaints had a grain of truth to it. Marshall respected the Constitution but he did not revere it. For 20 years as leader of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, he helped wage a patient but relentless war against the legal architecture of American racial segregation that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. Long years spent battling Jim Crow laws across the South made him an expert in the justice system’s shortcomings.
His views were hardly secret. Marshall was a legendary raconteur who loved recounting moments from his civil-rights career. One of them took place during his last year at Howard Law School in 1933. The dean had asked him to help defend George Crawford, a black man in Virginia who had been charged with murdering two white women. He had fled to Boston, fearing lynching, only to be extradited back to the South. At trial, he faced a shoddy prosecution that presented no witnesses or murder weapon to the all-white jury. Despite Marshall’s best efforts, the jurors found Crawford guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
After the verdict came down, Marshall would tell his audience, he and the law school’s dean celebrated. They had saved their client from execution. “If you get a life term for a negro charged with killing a white person in Virginia, you’ve won,” he would explain.
In 1987, as the nation celebrated the Constitution’s bicentennial, Marshall concluded that the document was “defective from the start” because of the flawed men who wrote it. “I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever 'fixed' at the Philadelphia Convention,” he said during a speech in San Francisco. Expanding the Framers’ vision of “We the People” from white men to all Americans required “several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation,” Marshall explained.
Left unstated was that he himself played a large part in that transformation. Before the Senate voted on Marshall’s nomination, Southern senators described him a judicial activist who had “urged the courts to repudiate or ignore all history and all precedents which stood in the way of rulings he desired.” They meant it as criticism, but 50 years later it reads as praise.
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