Thurgood Marshall Had Secret Contact With FBI:
Files Show Relationship Dated to Civil Rights Days
By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 3 1996; Page A02
The Washington Post
The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall maintained a
secret relationship with the FBI during the 1950s, when he was a
prominent civil rights lawyer, occasionally providing information to
bureau officials and seeking advice from them, according to newly
released FBI files.
Like many other civil rights leaders, Marshall often criticized the
FBI publicly -- especially in the 1940s, when he demanded
greater FBI efforts to investigate lynchings and other crimes
against African Americans. Some 1,300 pages of FBI documents
released in response to requests under the Freedom of Information
Act reveal another side to the relationship.
In 1956, for example, Marshall contacted a senior FBI official to
say that he would be giving the keynote address at an upcoming
annual convention of the NAACP. As reported in a memo to a
top aide of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Marshall thought he
"could do some good" by noting communist efforts to infiltrate civil
rights groups and believed that "some general items as to what the
communists are doing . . . could be used to good advantage."
The memo said Marshall "stated that no one would know where
he got the information and he wondered if I could be of any help
At the time the FBI devoted considerable resources to running
surveillance and harassment programs against alleged communists
and others the agency considered to be subversive. The document
suggests that the FBI's domestic intelligence division should come
up with information for Marshall, but there is no account of how
the matter was resolved.
"These documents are written from the FBI's point of view and
what is missing entirely is any account of Marshall's motivations,"
said Alexander Charns, a North Carolina attorney and author,
who has written extensively on the relationship between the
judiciary and the FBI and who obtained the FBI files on Marshall.
"Marshall may have been trying to protect the NAACP from the
kind of attacks that the FBI directed at other groups by convincing
Hoover that they were part of the fight against communism or he
may have been trying to develop a relationship so that the
NAACP could count on more help from the FBI when it ran into
trouble in the South. But, for sure, Marshall was no simple
informant," Charns said.
The FBI files, which were first reported in USA Today, show a
relationship that is "very complex and changed over time," Charns
In the 1940s Marshall harshly criticized the FBI for failing to
investigate lynchings and other civil rights crimes forcefully enough,
and in response Hoover openly stated his dislike of him, Charns
Then, in the 1950s, when Marshall was chief lawyer for the
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he cooperated
with the FBI primarily on the issue of anti-communism.
"This is not surprising," said Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil
rights era, "because at the time any number of civil rights leaders
were telling the FBI how vigilant they were against communism
because it was the only way they could survive in the highly
charged politics of that era."
In the mid-1960s, when Marshall served as solicitor general in the
Johnson administration, his attitude toward the FBI turned negative
again as he criticized the agency's use of wiretaps and other
surveillance measures in conversations with government officials
that were reported back to the bureau, Charns said. Again
Hoover became harshly negative toward Marshall.
Marshall served on the Supreme Court from 1967 until his
retirement in 1991. He died in 1993.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company