News & Observer

December 7, 1996


It helps to understand the pressures on Marshall

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like so many heroes of American democracy, was complex and contradictory. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enslaved Africans, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and President Kennedy's commitment to civil rights was questionable.

The Dec. 3 article "Records show Marshall's secret FBI ties" could have provided better context for Marshall's "ties" by highlighting that the FBI is a branch of the Justice Department, which was a key agency in the federal government's Cold War hunt for alleged Communist or un-American activities.

As the Cold War eclipsed World War II, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was fighting racial segregation in the courts. The LDF made the case that segregation itself was un-American by emphasizing ideas that it denied African-Americans the opportunity to embrace the true American values of justice and equality. Critical to the LDF's successes were special briefs the Justice Department submitted to the Supreme Court supporting its arguments.

In 1948, Marshall convinced President Truman's attorney general, Tom Clark, to support the LDF, which Marshall then headed. Clark was no liberal; he was a leading advocate of the loyalty program and compiled the first pink-list of alleged Communist sympathizers.

Marshall was perhaps overzealous, but the Justice Department (including the FBI) forced him to demonstrate that he and NAACP's Legal Defense Fund did not support communism to ensure its continued support. Marshall's tenuous relationship with the FBI should not detract from his heroic efforts to make the pillars of our democracy stand for all Americans.

Lee D. Baker

Assistant Professor

Cultural Anthropology and

African & African American Studies

Duke University


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