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

to him."

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