(b. 1 October 1922 in Plainfield, New Jersey; d. 2 June 2003 in Newtown, Connecticut), lawyer and law professor who as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy administration was involved in all aspects of the civil rights movement, including Freedom Rides, voting rights, school desegregation, the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Marshall was the second of the four children of Henry P. Marshall, an insurance broker, and Dorothy Louise Burke, a homemaker. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, graduating in 1940, and received a BA from Yale in 1943. He then served in the U.S. Army as a Japanese language specialist through the end of World War II. While in the military he met Violet Person, also a linguist, whom he married in 1946; the two would have three daughters. After the war Marshall returned to Yale, where he earned an LLB in 1951, then joined the Washington firm of Covington & Burling, specializing in antitrust law.
With the full formation of President John F. Kennedy’s administration in 1961, news of Marshall’s selection to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division was a surprise because he had no prior civil rights experience. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, however, saw this as an asset, as he wanted an outstanding lawyer with no political baggage. Kennedy’s initial interview with Marshall was hardly auspicious. As related by Victor Navasky in Kennedy Justice (1971), they sat for ten minutes without uttering a word. Afterward, Marshall told his wife, “I blew it.” Kennedy exclaimed, “I have nothing in common with that man.” Despite their awkward beginning, they soon formed a tight partnership. Navasky writes, “Marshall’s quiet style, his caution and precision... won the attorney general’s respect and total confidence.”
Marshall was tested in the Freedom Rider emergency of May 1961. When a biracial team of activists was savagely beaten for attempting to integrate an Alabama bus station, the Justice Department was forced to act. Marshall dispatched lawyers to seek restraining orders against the Ku Klux Klan and local police while mobilizing federal marshals to protect the activists until state authorities took charge. Eventually, the Freedom Riders were delivered to Mississippi with no more bloodshed. Kennedy and Marshall then lobbied the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in transportation facilities.
School desegregation was another issue on Marshall’s agenda. On 14 November 1960 federal marshals had escorted six-year-old Ruby Bridges through a howling mob of segregationists when she became the first African-American student to integrate New Orleans’ public schools. On taking office in 1961, Marshall discovered that the Eisenhower administration had done nothing to prepare the community for desegregation. He resolved to prevent a repeat of this crisis. That summer Marshall met with leaders in Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and seven other southern cities scheduled to desegregate their schools. Classes began on an integrated basis in September without Louisiana-style disruption due in part to Marshall’s efforts.
At the University of Mississippi, where state authorities had been disallowing the admission of the African-American student James Meredith, Marshall secured the student’s entry in federal court. He then tried to persuade state authorities to simply comply with the order, but Governor Ross Barnett blocked Meredith’s registration, and Marshall was forced to send U.S. marshals to guarantee the entry. When a riotous mob surrounded the officers, Marshall spent the night on the phone relaying instructions to federal forces until relief arrived.
Marshall’s staff attorneys brought suit to halt discrimination against black voters in fifty-eight southern counties. Progress was slow, however, because each case required extensive documentation, and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were, in Marshall’s words, “utterly useless” at this task. Marshall also encouraged young activists to undertake voter registration work. His skill as a negotiator was evident in Birmingham, Alabama, where protestors led by Martin Luther King, Jr., filled the streets and jails alike. When the police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor attacked demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses, Robert Kennedy sent Marshall to resolve the crisis. There, he discovered that white leaders refused to meet with King and his lieutenants. For four days, then, Marshall shuttled between the groups, clarifying black demands and prying concessions from powerful businessmen, known colloquially as the “Big Mules.” Finally, on 7 May 1963, he informed the White House that an agreement had been reached.
The confrontation in Birmingham convinced John F. Kennedy that civil rights legislation was needed. Marshall developed a rationale for the controversial public accommodation provision of the proposed bill based on the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution; he then sold his view to dubious senators, with the bill becoming the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In general, Marshall’s approach to civil rights was characterized by a reluctance to use federal power. He espoused a theory of federalism that placed responsibility for law enforcement on local authorities, a stance that set him at odds with those seeking federal protection for civil rights workers. Despite their differences, Marshall was respected by segregationists and activists alike. His honesty, accessibility, and willingness to listen helped him craft compromises acceptable to all sides. In 1964 Marshall published Federalism and Civil Rights, detailing his view of the government’s role with respect to civil rights.
Marshall left the Justice Department in 1965 to become general counsel at International Business Machines (IBM). Accepting Marshall’s letter of resignation, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “I have never known any person who rendered a better quality of public service.” In 1967 Johnson named him to head the National Advisory Commission on Selective Service. Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, remained a close friend to Marshall, who handled Kennedy family legal matters and supported Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In 1970 Marshall departed IBM for Yale Law School to serve as deputy dean and distinguished professor. He also chaired the board of the Vera Institute of Justice. Marshall died in 2003 of complications from a bone marrow disorder. His body was cremated and his ashes partially scattered at sea; remaining ashes were interred on Northaven Island in Maine.
Marshall’s contributions to civil rights are legendary. As a key member of the Kennedy administration, he enforced existing federal law and proposed sweeping new legislation. With large eyeglasses and a quiet demeanor, he resembled a mild-mannered professor but never shied away from difficult situations. Navasky notes that Marshall, who was selected as assistant attorney general because of his lawyerly skills, “made his greatest contribution in a distinctly extralegal capacity.” He was “the field general, the executive officer of the extraordinary Kennedy corps of problem solvers.”
Marshall’s personal papers and most of his official files are at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston; other papers are at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. Both hold oral history interviews. Marshall’s work at the Justice Department is covered in Victor Navasky’s excellent Kennedy Justice (1971). Histories of the civil rights movement documenting Marshall’s contributions include Carl M. Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction (1977); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988); and Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 3 June 2003).
Paul T. Murray