Justice Marshall and Black History

February 06, 1993

In his later years, Justice Thurgood Marshall gained a reputation as something of a curmudgeon. He could, for example, be scathing in his assessment of the movers and shakers of his time: He once called Robert F. Kennedy "a cold, calculating character" and thought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "wasn't worth diddly squat" as an organizer, according to taped interviews recorded in 1977.

But what others viewed as inveterate grouchiness, Marshall himself put down to his preference for plain speaking. Once during oral argument before the court, Justice Felix Frankfurter asked him to define the word "equal." Marshall replied: "Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place." It was hard to disagree.

Marshall made no secret of his likes and dislikes. Last year he dismissed Malcolm X's contribution with a rhetorical, "What did he ever do? Name me one thing he did!" In his taped interview he said of Malcolm X: "In the end, he kept wanting to talk to me, and I kept telling him to go to hell." Yet he averred that ordinary Muslims were among "the nicest, sweetest, most decent people you will ever run across," while insisting, "I wouldn't agree with anything a Muslim says, any time, any place."

When Robert Kennedy offered him a seat on the U.S. District Court knowing Marshall wanted to be on the appeals court, sparks flew. "I told Bobby Kennedy that I was not district judge material, because my fuse was too short," Marshall recalled. He said Robert Kennedy then told him: " 'You don't seem to understand, it's this or nothing.' " His response: "Well, I do understand. The trouble is that you are different from me. You don't know what it means, but all I've had in my life is nothing. It's not new to me, so, goodbye." He got the appeals court seat he wanted.

Marshall's commitment was to truth; he had no use for political correctness. He criticized Martin Luther King bitterly for foisting off his organization's legal bills on the NAACP and dismissed the Afrocentric movement with the tart observation that he was far more interested in "the rights of Americans." Yet he was an unabashed admirer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who appointed him as the first black Supreme Court justice before being driven from office by opposition to the Vietnam War: "I think if he'd been re-elected, he'd have been still alive today. . . . He died of a broken heart. What a lovely guy."

As the nation celebrates Black History Month, we feel confident in predicting Thurgood Marshall's stature both as judge and as advocate for equal justice for all will grow in coming years.

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