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Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall and the Way to Justice

Two towering lives in a prequel to Black Lives Matter.

The past few years in America have been frightening and fitful seasons, given the brew of race, crime, and police misconduct. A black woman is arrested in Texas for a minor offense, only later to be found dead, hanging in her cell. Suicide? Her family doubts it. A black man is shot in Chicago, 16 rounds. He had a small knife, but he was walking away from the police officer, who has been charged with murder. There are younger victims: Tamir Rice, shot dead in Cleveland by police, no charges brought. Trayvon Martin, shot dead by a neighborhood watchman in Florida, his killer acquitted. It's all a long American story, a long funeral procession.

There is a nationwide call now for police reform. All lives matter, sure enough, but race is out in the open anew. The past has been evoked. The holes in the justice system seem more exposed than ever.

Today’s America again calls to mind Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, two epochal figures who stood in the doorway of an earlier Black Lives Matter movement, both together and apart. They found themselves staring into sometimes corrupt, and mostly white, police departments. Found themselves staring the shadow of urban malaise and inequality, into a nation rupturing at the seams over race and criminal justice.

They realized they were under the same umbrella, and storms were everywhere. But if there was a camaraderie amongst the black elite in America in the 1950s and 1960s — and there was — it did not translate to King and Marshall. Their public sightings together were rare. Their philosophies differed. Their strategies diverged.

Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1940. He crisscrossed the country filing lawsuits on behalf of his aggrieved clients, blacks who were denied the vote, access to fair housing, and all too often equal treatment before the law. In a sense, the simple fruits of democracy were out of reach. Marshall's legal victories before the Supreme Court were historic.

In 1944 Marshall won in Smith v. Allwright, which outlawed the all-white Democratic Primary in Texas. Four years later came Shelley v. Kraemer, which did away with restrictive covenants in housing. In 1950 there was Sweatt v. Painter, ordering the admission of blacks into the University of Texas Law School.

As big as those victories were, the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was even more galvanizing: It outlawed the massive separate but equal doctrine that had long formed the American educational system.

That was the very year that King — 21 years younger than Marshall — became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., the pulpit that catapulted him into the limelight as he served up religious-themed speeches to harness a movement in support of equality. He advocated Gandhi-like techniques of front-line marching and non-violent resistance.

King and Marshall would intersect most directly over the issue of King's ground strategy, which involved freedom rides on buses in the Deep South, and marches featuring school-age children. "They are suffering for what they believe, and they are suffering to make this nation a better nation," King told a group of Alabama parents fretting about children lying in jail cells instead of their own beds. King believed man's law had to be changed, massaged in a different direction, and he felt those biblical pronunciations would fortify his audiences.

Marshall, trained as a lawyer, saw the law as sacrosanct. He believed in legal redress, even when it took time. He indeed had suffered setbacks in courtrooms. But he had also tasted victory. He had gotten teachers equal pay. Old and bent black men and women had seen doors to voting places swing open. When Marshall looked at King, he was often reminded of southern jails, of the bad things that could happen in them, of all those black lives that hadn’t quite mattered. "I used to have a lot of fights with Martin about his theory about disobeying the law," Marshall once said. "I didn't believe in that...He kept talking about Thoreau, and I told him, I said, 'If I understand it, Thoreau wrote his book in jail.'" (Marshall's sentiments didn't stop him from dipping into his NAACP legal funds at times to offer bail money for the jailed marchers.)

They may have differed over the tenets of civil disobedience, but King and Marshall were shrewd observers of one another's stature. Their age difference did not intimidate King. King — who had entered Morehouse College early, who had always acted older than his age — had long heard from a cadre of southern black religious leaders what a force Marshall had been in Southern courtrooms. Marshall had also courted southern black religious leaders for much of his working life.

In 1962 when there was a Supreme Court vacancy, King wrote to President Kennedy suggesting that Marshall — by now a federal appellate judge — get the appointment. King thought a Marshall nomination would prove the administration's "serious determination to make the Negro a full participant in every phase of American life." Byron White got the nomination and seat.

In 1964 both King and Marshall attended a national convention of Episcopalians held in St. Louis. There was a resolution offered supporting civil disobedience, clear recognition of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The resolution was rejected, a good number of the gathered clergy believing King's actions were illegal. Many in attendance wondered how Marshall would react. Would he align himself publicly with those who opposed King? He would not. He walked out.

The two men, King and Marshall, were sensitive about airing their differences in public. That did not stop King's lieutenants from privately berating Marshall for being too conservative, but, having stood up to more menacing tormentors in the South, Marshall found it easy to ignore the jibes within the movement.

In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first black to be nominated to the highest tribunal in the land. There were several southern segregationists — Sam Ervin, Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, John McClellan — who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and who aimed to thwart the Marshall nomination, asserting that he would make a soft-on-crime court even softer. (A year earlier the Supreme Court had issued its Miranda ruling, which stated that those taken into custody must be told of their constitutional rights. It was a ruling the Southern senators sitting in judgement of Marshall simply loathed.)

Then came more of the street upheaval that King and Marshall so often feared, that sent so many more black lives spiraling: On the final day of Marshall's confirmation hearings, Detroit caught fire in a long spasm of racial violence. Forty three died. Among them three young black men shot by police — in the back. The police officers were tried, but acquitted. President Johnson wasted no time in warning senators about the situation on the streets, combining that bit of political dialogue with the Marshall nomination, which by its fifth day had set a record for lengthy Supreme Court nominee hearings.

Thurgood Marshall made it onto the Supreme Court.

A year later, in 1968, King was assassinated.

Wil Haygood is the author of the recently published "SHOWDOWN: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America.