Joining Forces: Thurgood Marshall and John Lewis
Janell Byrd-Chichester
Janell Byrd-Chichester

Director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute

Joining Forces:

Thurgood Marshall and John Lewis

October 2nd, 2020

John Lewis’s death on July 17 marked a profound loss for the civil rights community. Congressman Lewis was the last living member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders and, in describing the weight of his loss, many reflected on the power, legacy, and intricacies of the broader civil rights movement.

Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) founder Thurgood Marshall’s swearing in as the first Black Supreme Court justice, I find myself reflecting upon the special relationship these two civil rights giants enjoyed. While some have depicted the relationship between these two icons in a rather harsh, adversarial posture, distinctly pitting Lewis’s protest-oriented approach to change making against Marshall’s method of effecting change through the court system, I think they miss the mark. What they are missing is the mutual admiration that Lewis and Marshall had for each other — and the substantial support they provided one another as they worked toward the common goal of dismantling white supremacy. Both men dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice and repeatedly put their personal health and safety on the line to challenge American racism.

In Lewis’s own words, he described his deep appreciation for the actions Marshall undertook to protect and defend him and other civil rights protesters.

The book Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench, quotes Lewis reflecting on Marshall: “I think Thurgood Marshall had this abiding concern that we didn’t need to continue to put ourselves in harm’s way. I think that, more than anything else, was his idea. He wasn’t saying be ‘patient’ and ‘wait,’ he was just saying that this is the way he would do it, through the courts and that we didn’t need to have people spitting on us, pulling us off lunch-counter stools, and putting lighted cigarettes out in our hair.” 

Lewis concluded, “I think Thurgood was concerned more than anything else about the young people’s well-being.” [1]

Marshall committed LDF’s resources to supporting civil rights advocates early in the movement – and did so time and time again. He represented the foot soldiers of the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in Browder v. Gayle and prevailed in the Supreme Court based on the reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education. He personally argued and won Boynton v. Virginia in Supreme Court, which involved the arrest of an African American man who sought service in a “whites only” restaurant at a Virginia bus terminal in 1958. Marshall convened a strategy conference in 1960 in Washington, D.C., of 62 lawyers who represented more than 1,000 demonstrators in the South. He told the New York Times in March of 1960, that what the students were doing was “legal and right,” and that “[w]e’re pulling out all the stops. We’re really in it.”

“[O]n many occasions when we got arrested, when we went to jail, the NAACP responded with lawyers like Donald Hollowell, A.T. Walden, and James Nabrit. The NAACP had lawyers all across the South, so when we would go to jail, even though Thurgood Marshall disagreed with our techniques, he would make available the legal expertise and the legal resources of the [NAACP Legal Defense Fund], Jim Nabrit, Constance Baker Motley, Robert Carter, and a battery of just very bright and very smart people.”

John Lewis

Marshall also repeatedly called for mutual coordination and support for the civil rights protesters. “We just can’t sit on the sidelines and cheer the Freedom Riders,” he stated in an LDF press release on June 23, 1961. “We must participate ourselves; if not in the freedom rides, in some other activity which helps break down racial segregation.” He was true to his word. In one of the last cases he litigated before he joined the bench, Garner v. Louisiana, Marshall represented lunch counter sit-in protesters who had been arrested for “disturbing the peace” — and secured a unanimous favorable Supreme Court ruling on their behalf.

Click to read the full press release. 

Again, from Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench, Lewis reflected: 

“[O]n many occasions when we got arrested, when we went to jail, the NAACP responded with lawyers like Donald Hollowell, A.T. Walden, and James Nabrit. The NAACP had lawyers all across the South, so when we would go to jail, even though Thurgood Marshall disagreed with our techniques, he would make available the legal expertise and the legal resources of the [NAACP Legal Defense Fund], Jim Nabrit, Constance Baker Motley, Robert Carter, and a battery of just very bright and very smart people.” [2]

LDF directly represented Lewis, along with other protesters, in numerous civil rights matters. Marshall himself was on the legal team that represented Lewis and others in Lewis v. Greyhound, which involved a violent attack on the Freedom Riders at the Montgomery, Alabama bus terminal.

On this notable day — during a very trying year for this country and the civil rights community especially — I am encouraged and emboldened when reflecting on this remarkable joining of forces among civil rights titans who held deep respect for one another, despite their differences on strategy. Indeed, the Marshall/Lewis relationship highlights the immeasurable value of the joining of forces to fight together to pursue equality and justice.

Endnotes
[1] Michael D. Davis & Hunter R. Clark, Thurgood Marshall:  Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench, (Birch Lane Press) 1992, at 218.
[1] Id. at 217.
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