As our nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, it’s important to remember that this landmark case had been years in the making by the time the Supreme Court handed down its ruling. The case that would become Briggs v. Elliott (the first of five segregation cases eventually combined into Brown) actually began in 1947 in Summerton, South Carolina—just another sleepy town in the Jim Crow South where NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc’s Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall and his talented team of lawyers never saw the words “Equal Justice Under Law” carved into any marble courthouses.
The LDF attorneys practiced law in an American landscape that few would recognize or even care to remember today. A few months before Briggs began, and only a few hundred miles away, Marshall was nearly lynched at the side of Duck River in Columbia, Tennessee after some locals did not appreciate the victory the lawyer had won in court for his clients—black men who had been falsely accused of rioting after they defended their homes and businesses from racial attacks by both the Ku Klux Klan and police.
That same summer of 1946 there was a wave of soldier lynchings across the Cotton Belt states. Nearly a million African-American veterans had returned from military service, and those in the South were expected to fall back into the stifling strictures of Jim Crow. Many protested this return to second-class citizenship by continuing to wear their military uniforms in silent protest—a reminder that they had put their lives on the line for freedom and democracy—and yet they had generally been treated with more respect and dignity overseas than in their own country. This “uppity” behavior was greeted by predictable violence and anti-black terrorism, as one altercation after another led to crippling injuries and the lynching of black veterans while still in their uniforms.
Such was the environment that Marshall and the LDF lawyers found themselves in at the start of the school cases that formed Brown. It’s difficult to imagine Marshall’s opponent in this landmark case, the highly esteemed appellate lawyer John W. Davis, being chased out of courtrooms by angry mobs, or being warned by government officials that a local deputy may try to kill him. Yet threats and violence were workplace conditions that Marshall and his lawyers had grown accustomed to. Indeed, as the future Supreme Court justice had finished Briggs proceedings in 1952, Marshall had been sternly warned by one of the opposing South Carolina lawyers, “If you show your black ass in Clarendon County ever again, you’re a dead man.”
In Lake County, Florida, the LDF became involved in an explosive criminal case (“Groveland”) where four young black men had been falsely accused of rape and were facing the electric chair. The case threatened to derail Brown like no other. Marshall had been urged to steer clear of Florida, where a series of bombings (“The Florida Terror”) aimed at black churches and the homes of prominent civil rights leaders had rocked the state. He was too important to the school cases and the burgeoning civil rights movement to involve himself with such dangerous cases in the South, he’d been told. (Indeed, one of the blasts claimed the life of Marshall’s associate, Harry T. Moore—the state secretary of the NAACP in Florida—and Moore’s wife, Harriette on Christmas night of 1951.) Yet Marshall and his lawyers did not back off from the fight, despite the fact that they were indisputably irreplaceable. The criminal cases were important, too, Marshall later said, “because they saved lives.”
I have no doubt, on this the anniversary of the most important legal case of the 20th century, that Thurgood Marshall would be extremely proud of his legacy at the LDF, its leadership, and its continuing commitment to the principles of racial justice.
Gilbert King is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.