'Oh, yipe!' said Marshall

February 09, 1993

In 1977, Thurgood Marshall gave a series of interviews to Columbia University's Oral History Research Office. They were conducted by Ed Edwin, a journalist, and made public after the retired Supreme Court Justice died at 84 on Jan. 24.

Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall, then a court of appeals judge, solicitor general in 1965. Then -- and many times later -- LBJ told Marshall that he would never name him to the Supreme Court.

This excerpt describes events on June 13, 1967, when Marshall learned that the president had changed his mind. THE morning when the appointment came through, Ramsey Clark, the attorney general, called my secretary and said, "Is the judge in?"

She said, "Yes."

"Is anybody with him?"

She said, "No."

He said, "Well, don't let anybody in there. I'm coming down to see him."

She said, "Fine." So he came down the hall, came in and we had pleasantries and all and I said, "Well, what're you up to, Ramsey?"

He said, "What are you doing this morning?"

I said, "Well, at 11 o'clock" or whatever time it was, "I've got to go up to the White House to talk to some students or something, some people."

He said, "Do you have a car?"

I said, "Look, Mrs. Avery [Marshall's secretary] knows what she's doing. If I've got an appointment, she's going to have a car ready for me."

He said, "Well, you go up there at 10:45 instead of 11. Instead of going there, you go to the Oval Room."

I said, "What for, Ramsey?"

He said, "I don't know."

I said, "OK. What do I do, walk on in there?"

Then he said, "No, no, no."

Well, there were several ways, three ways at least, you could get in there without being seen. And he told me, he said, "You'd better take that No. 1 way."

I said, "Okey-doke."

So I went down and got in the car and went that way, and this is a very nice route, because what you do at a certain spot, you just get out of the car, and you walk over and there's a guard standing there watching the line of people going in that morning, you know, visitors.

And he puts you in line and you go in with all the other people, looking, saying, "Oh! Ah!" You are all excited, it's the first time you've ever seen the building.

And then, when you get in the building, when you get to a certain door, there's a Secret Service man that will beckon to you, and you go in there. As a matter of fact, I went in, two people came behind and the guard said, "Oh, no, no, not you, you stay out."

Then [I went] to the Cabinet room and Marv Watson (Johnson's appointments secretary) said, "The president will see you in a couple of minutes."

I said, "What's up, Marv?"

He said, "I dunno. I dunno."

So, next he said, "Go on in."

I went in and he was over there at the ticker-tape machine, and I waited a little while and I coughed and he said, "Oh, hi, Thurgood. Sit down. Sit down."

So we chatted just a few minutes and I didn't ask him what was on his mind. I let him speak. And all of a sudden, he just looked at me and said, "You know something, Thurgood?"

I said, "No, sir, what's that?"

He said, "I'm going to put you on the Supreme Court."

I said, "Oh, yipe! What did you say?"

He said, "That's it."

I said, "OK, sir."

He had the press out there waiting in the Rose Garden and he carried me out and announced it and then we came back in the Oval Room. And I said, "Mr. President, look, they're going to get that on the wire in about a minute. Now, can I call my wife so she won't hear it on the air?"

He said, "You mean you haven't told Sissie yet?"

I said, "No. How could I? I've been with you all the time."

L So we called her and I said, "Sissie, are you sitting down?"

She said, "No."

I said, "Well, you better sit down."

And she did and then I beckoned to the president. The president said, "Sissie, this is Lyndon Johnson."

She said, "Yes, Mr. President?"

He said, "I just put your husband on the Supreme Court."

And Sissie said, "I sure am glad I'm sitting down."

Then he said, "I guess this is the end of our friendship."

I said, "Yep. Just about. Be no more of that."

I said, "Well, I'll tell you this, Mr. President. You know, [former Justice] Tom Clark and Harry Truman were close as anybody, but when that steel case came up, Tom had to sock it to him." (In 1952, President Truman seized control of the steel industry. The Supreme Court declared his action unconstitutional.)

He said, "Well, you wouldn't do like that to me?"

I said, "No sooner than!"

He said, "Well, that's the way I want it." And that's the way it was.

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