Date: Tue, 6 Apr 1999 04:18:31 -0700 (PDT)
From: Art McGee <>
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Thurgood Marshall and the FBI

Thurgood Marshall and the FBI

By Randall Kennedy,, Thursday 5 December 1996

Thurgood Marshall: FBI Informer?

Now Tony Mauro of USA Today reports that 1,300 pages of FBI files obtained pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act show that Marshall, too, actively cooperated with the Bureau. According to one 1961 memo in the files, Marshall conferred with the Bureau on several occasions in connection with his efforts to combat communist efforts to infiltrate the NAACP. Another file suggests that he warned the Bureau that the NAACP was about to pass a resolution critical of the U.S. Justice Department. Another suggests that he told the FBI about a faction of the North Carolina NAACP that advocated violent resistance to racial oppression.

How should one react to these revelations?

First, it must be remembered that the files in question are not necessarily accurate. They are raw documents that indicate what FBI officials memorialized. Sometimes agents are misinformed, make mistakes, pander to the perceived wishes of their bosses. More research will have to be done to determine the reliability of the files. It must be remembered, too, that the FBI is the agency handing over the files. Perhaps there are some items that the agency has declined to make public.

Second, assuming the files to be accurate, one must recall the context of the 1950s, a period dominated politically by the Cold War. In every sector of American society, leading individuals and organizations attempted to neutralize the communist movement. Like the ACLU, the NAACP formally excluded communists from its ranks.

Why would he work with the FBI?

The barring and purging of communists stemmed from a variety of motivations. The most urgent was self-protection; Marshall wanted to insulate the NAACP from the whirlwind of anti-communist feeling that swept the country. Fighting white supremacy was tough enough without facing the threat of being stigmatized as red or pink. That this tack was prudent is difficult to dispute. At the same time that the federal judiciary countenanced the virtual outlawing of the Communist Party, it protected the organizational privacy of the NAACP.

The anti-communism of Marshall and the NAACP was also fueled by other concerns. One was a sense of bitter rivalry; Marshall & Co. perceived themselves to be locked in a competition with the Communist Party for the hearts and minds of American blacks. Another was disgust at the willingness of the communists to exploit the oppression and anger of blacks for their own purposes. Marshall felt this especially keenly because a favorite organizing tool of the Communist Party were court cases featuring black defendants subjected to white supremacist justice. Another basis of Marshall's anti-communism had to do with his deeply felt allegiance to the existing American social order. Marshall was no revolutionary. He was a moderate reformer seeking simply to make the status quo accessible to African Americans.

All of these considerations also explain why it would be unsurprising to me if documents revealed that, on occasion, Marshall passed on to the FBI information about persons within the civil rights community whom he believed to be prone to actions, particularly any resort to violence, that might seriously besmirch the reputation of that community. Skeptical of the non-violent civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall detested the volatile rhetoric and militant posturing of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. (One of Marshall's favorite items in his chambers was a cartoon from Jet magazine showing him about to slam a gavel down upon some unkempt persons labeled as black power militants.) I would think, then, that in Marshall's view, informing the FBI of readily accessible information about misguided agitators was merely a harmless ploy that reinforced the overall aim to which he dedicated himself tirelessly as an attorney: the advancement of colored people.

A well intentioned ambition

Some of those reacting to the disclosure of Marshall's secret relationship with the FBI have gone to some lengths to rebut the unspoken but hovering question: Did the great Thurgood Marshall play ball with the racist and otherwise contemptible J. Edgar Hoover partly in order to grease the way for his personal ascent to power? I suspect that personal ambition in conjunction with the considerations noted above played a role in Marshall's actions. He did not become Solicitor General and a Supreme Court Justice purely on the basis of his skills as an attorney. He (like everyone else who attains high appointive office) obtained these posts after having first demonstrated his reliability to those in a position to offer such positions. The FBI files recently released will probably offer useful hints as to what reliability meant for blacks in leadership positions in the civil rights establishment in the 1950s and 1960s.

I admired Justice Marshall when I worked for him. I admire him now. From all that I presently know, he grappled intelligently and honorably with the dilemmas he faced during his eventful life. Of course, he was personally ambitious. Fortunately, that ambition was yoked to worthy ideals.