Today’s blog was written by Stacey Chandler, textual reference archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve as United States Supreme Court Justice. It was a milestone etched in the American memory in part because of the infamous fight to push Marshall’s nomination through a bitterly divided U.S. Senate. But, few people know that the Supreme Court battle was not Marshall’s first run-in with people angered by the idea of a black civil rights lawyer ruling from a federal bench.
By 1961, Marshall was already in the national spotlight as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was known as an integration advocate – the man who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954, convincing the nation’s highest court that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. While Marshall continued his legal work for the NAACP, journalist and political adviser Louis Martin (later known as the “Godfather of Black Politics”) was working on a different civil rights approach: encouraging President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to appoint judges of color to rule over federal courts.
Marshall turned down the first job Robert Kennedy offered him – a judgeship in a lower court –but a week later, he bumped into Louis Martin at the airport in New York. The two shared hot dogs at the lunch counter and talked about vacant judgeships in the higher courts, specifically, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, considered to be among the country’s most influential courts. Martin later remembered asking Marshall if he would accept one of these prominent judgeships. Marshall’s replied, “Well, I think it’s a hell of a job. Sure, I’d take it any way I can get it.”Martin “did all I could to persuade [the Attorney General] that this would be a tremendous stroke to get ‘Mr. Civil Rights’ into the judiciary,” and on September 23, 1961, Thurgood Marshall’s name was sent to the Senate as the Kennedy Administration’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Congress adjourned a few days later without confirming Marshall for the job. In October, the President gave Marshall a “recess appointment” that allowed him to serve in the judgeship while Congress held his nomination hearings. It was not until May 1962, when Marshall had already been serving in the judgeship for seven months, that the Senate subcommittee charged with holding confirmation hearings actually began to hold them. In the mail that poured into the White House, some Americans bluntly stated their own fears about the nomination. One citizen worried about the nomination of a pro-integration “radical,” while another saw the appointment as an affront to Christian America.
But, many letters expressed support for Marshall’s nomination and disbelief over the publicly-stated reasons for the delays, which included everything from questioning Marshall about the intricacies of judicial ethics, to problems scheduling the subcommittee meetings. Some writers were outraged that the three-person subcommittee was selected by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi and included two similarly notorious segregationists: Olin Johnston of South Carolina and John McClellan of Arkansas.
While the subcommittee delayed, a Supreme Court Justice announced his retirement. Several letters to the White House, including one from Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested that the President forget the Second Circuit judgeship and appoint Marshall to the vacancy at the Supreme Court instead. But the administration quickly nominated Deputy Attorney General Byron White, who was confirmed by Congress about a week later.Marshall, calling the stalled process for his own confirmation “the long siege,” remembered telling President Kennedy that it was “taking its effect on my family.” He recalled the President’s response: “Forget about it – it takes time.” But, still waiting in August 1962, President Kennedy acknowledged in a press conference that the nomination “has been much too much delayed.” Nearly a year after the initial nomination was sent to the Senate, more frustrated letters began to appear in the White House mail room, pressuring the administration to take action.
The wait finally ended in September 1962, when vocal Marshall supporter Senator Kenneth Keating (New York) and a few of his colleagues pulled off a political maneuver that took control of the nomination away from the subcommittee and brought it to the larger Senate Judiciary Committee. Over the objections of four Committee members, including Johnston, McClellan, and Eastland, the nomination was approved.In 1964, Marshall was asked whether he considered his nomination and confirmation to be overt support for the Civil Rights Movement. He answered: “No, no. The Attorney General made that clear.” He went on to note, “I sit as a circuit judge on the Appellate Court, but if I go to Mississippi I couldn’t stay in any decent hotel, go to any restaurant, or go to any theater.” But the mail that came into the White House during and after the hearings makes it clear that this fight did, indeed, hold a deeper meaning for many Americans. It highlighted the stark divides among the people – and among their representatives – hinting at the Supreme Court nomination battle that was still to come.