African-American Women Astronauts Making their Mark in Space Exploration

Today’s Women’s History Month Blog was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

All kinds of people have dreamt about flying into outer space, but only a select few are chosen to make this dream a reality. Out of this select few, a small number are women and an even a smaller number are African American. The series Mission Photographs Taken During the Space Shuttle Program, 4/12/1981 – 7/21/2011 (NAID 12562338) contains digital photographs of every space shuttle mission during its twenty year tenure. The photographs include the missions that Mae C. Jemison, Stephanie D. Wilson, and Joan E. Higginbotham were a part of. These African-American women astronauts were determined to reach the stars, and, while in the process, have inspired a new generation of space explorers.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison made her mark in space exploration history as the first African-American women to fly into space. She flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-47) as a science mission specialist in September 1992. Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She entered Stanford University at age sixteen and received her B. S. in Chemical Engineering and a B. A. in African and Afro-American Studies in 1977. She also attended Cornell Medical College and earned her Doctorate of Medicine in 1981. Before beginning her career at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1987, Jemison was a member of the Peace Corps as a medical officer in West Africa. During her first flight in space, she conducted several scientific experiments, including two-bone cell research, weightlessness, and motion sickness. Dr. Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 to pursue a career in higher education and became an advocate for science education.

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Stephanie D. Wilson was the second African-American woman astronaut to fly into space. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and received her B. S. in engineering science from Harvard University in 1988. Wilson also received her Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1992. She joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1996, and flew on three shuttle flights as a mission specialist. Her first flight was on the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-121), the second Return to Flight mission from July 4 – 7, 2006; her second flight was aboard  Discovery (STS-120) from October 23 – November 7, 2007 and her last flight was also on Discovery (STS-131) from April 5 – 20, 2010. Wilson is still a part of NASA’s astronaut program and has received numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (2009 and 2011) and NASA Space Flight Medal (2006, 2007, and 2010).

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Joan E. Higginbotham is the third African-American female astronaut to fly into space. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Higginbotham received her B. S. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1987. She then received her Masters of Management Science (1992) and Masters in Space Science (1996) from the Florida Institute of Technology. She joined NASA in 1987 and was selected for astronaut training in 1996. She flew her first and only mission on Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-116) from December 9 – 22, 2006. Higginbotham received the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Black Rose Award. She resigned from NASA in 2007.

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We thank you for your service.

Posted in African-American Women, Tribute/News | Tagged , , , , , , ,

To Boldly Go Where No (Wo)Man Has Gone Before…

Today’s post was written by Ms. Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“Space, the final frontier…” these are the words recited at the beginning of every episode of the national treasure that is Star Trek: The Original Series. Widely known to be an inspiration to geeks, nerds, sci-fi buffs and world leaders alike, Star Trek remains an enduring symbol and example of what the future could be for humanity and space exploration. One actress from the show has worked for decades in an effort to recruit women and people of color in order to ensure that Lieutenant Uhura would not be the only black woman in space.

black and white photograph of a group of people including Nichelle Nichols standing in front of a spacecraft

Actress Nichelle Nichols at the Visitor Information Center, John Glen Research Center at Lewis Field (NAID 17468123)

Lt. Uhura was portrayed by Nichelle Nichols from 1966 to 1991. As communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura was fourth in command on the vessel, highly intelligent, and strong in her own agency. That all of these qualities were portrayed by an African American woman was shocking to home viewing audiences in the 1960s, who were accustomed to seeing them as domestics and subservient characters when they were onscreen. Nichelle Nichols (and Gene Rodenberry’s creation) carried out a mission that sought to normalize black people being intelligent and more than servile domestics.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recognized the positive impact and influence Nichols presence on the TV screen had, and in the late 1970s, hired the actress to recruit women and people of color for the Space Shuttle Program. This partnership led to many appearances, speeches, and personal visits to airfields and other government sites such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), seen in the press release below (from RG 342, Records of US Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations).

black and white photograph of Nichelle Nichols holding a piece of a satellite

Nichelle Nichols holding a piece of a satellite presented by Capt. David Martin at NORAD, 1/6/1977, RG 342

NORAD press release regarding Nichelle Nichols' visit to NORAD

Many astronauts have credited Nichols and the character of Lt. Uhura as an inspiration to them for seeking out opportunities with NASA, including: Ronald McNair, Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and the first African American woman in space – Mae Jemison. Nichelle Nichols continues an alliance with NASA – most recently taking a flight with the flying observatory SOFIA in 2015.

–Live Long and Prosper

Posted in African-American Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black Panther: A News Reel Video

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Lead Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

The ideology of Black Power promotes cultural appreciation and black self-determination. Although it sometimes has negative connotations, the phrase “Black Power” represented racial pride, political and economic empowerment, and community service among those of African descent.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was established on October 15, 1966 by two college students, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California to monitor police brutality in the community. The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary organization, born out of the Black Power movement, with an ideology of black nationalism and armed self-defense. The Panthers also introduced and enacted progressive social programs, such as providing free breakfast for school children, sickle-cell anemia testing, legal aid, and adult education.

The video Black Panther (NAID 12101) in the RG 65 Motion Picture Films and Video Recordings, ca. 1936- ca. 1985 (NAID 12073) series contains footage of Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver discussing the purpose, need, and rise of the Black Panther Party in the African-American community, as well as their opposition to the Vietnam War. The video also shows images of Black Panther members participating in drills, protests, and singing panther songs in the Bobby Hutton Memorial Park and in front of the Alameda County Courthouse. Party Leader Kathleen Cleaver is also seen speaking at Hutton Memorial Park.

Disclaimer: video contains some harsh language

The Ten-Point Program (or Platform) as explained by Bobby Seale in the video established the goals and agenda of the BPP. The platform was created by canvassing the neighborhood to determine the wants and the beliefs of the black community. A couple of the points include: power to determine the destiny of the black community, decent housing, full employment, an immediate end to police brutality, and trial by a jury of peers.

Posted in Anniversary, Black Power, Civil Rights Protest & Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Jesse Owens, American Hero

Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park

photo with Jesse Owens starting an Olympic race

Olympian Jesse Owens, NAID 595375

The new biographical movie about Jesse Owens, Race, will be released in theaters this Friday, February 19th. The title has a double meaning – alluding to Owens’ historic record breaking feats he performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as well as his identity as an African American, which presented hurdles as a citizen of the United States.

Jesse Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913. In the 1920s, his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio as part of the Great Migration. After a very successful track career in high school (where he helped his team win a national title and set world records), Owens was heavily recruited by many colleges due to his athletic prowess. Jesse Owens decided to run track at The Ohio State University, where, although he was the track star, campus segregation barred him and other African American athletes from living on campus and traveling on the same bus to track meets. In spite of these and other hardships, Jesse Owens earned the title of “fastest man on Earth” at a Big Ten meet in which he broke three world records (long jump, 220 yard sprint, and 220 hurdles) and tied the world record for the 100 yard dash.

Next came the 1936 Olympics, taking place in Berlin, Germany. These Olympic games were met with controversy in the United States. Many athletes and supporters were concerned that participation would send the message that the US supported Hitler’s regime; and on the other side, many wanted to go to prove the idea of Aryan supremacy wrong. With four gold medals won in the 100 meter, 200 meter, long jump, and the 4×100 relay – Jesse Owens overwhelmingly showed the world the error in the thought of Aryan superiority. Owens excellent showing and winning four gold medals was not matched until Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Olympics.

 Jesse Owens Olympic glory was celebrated around the world, his dominance at the games making him arguably the most famous Olympian. When Owens returned home, he was met with the mixed bag of treatment and courtesy afforded to an African American living in the US. From the series Franklin D. Roosevelt President’s Official Files, 1933-1945 (NAID 567634) there are numerous letters and telegrams expressing enthusiasm and glee for how the “fastest human” will be welcomed and celebrated when he gets home. One telegram, from New York City, announces that “Jesse Owens has been officially selected to March at the head of the American Olympic in the welcome home parade up Broadway,” and the Good Neighbor League “would be honored to carry on by presenting your greetings to these great athletes.”


Telegram to Franklin D. Roosevelt, nd. File: OF 720: Olympic Games, 1933-1943 NAID 2780709

Another letter from the same file (OF 720: Olympic Games, NAID 2780709) puts forward suggestions for an extravagant homecoming, citing the political and social gains:

“It would seem that a move of this kind would be a Master stroke for many obvious reasons – politically and otherwise…This should please the negro race because of Jesse Owen[sic] and the other colored Americans…I believe that the most extreme Southerner would laud you for this very discreet and timely move”


Letter from H. R. O’Keefe to President Franklin Roosevelt, 8/10/1936. File OF 720: Olympic Games (NAID 2780709)

Still other letters came in calling directly for President Roosevelt to invite Jesse Owens to the White House and shake his hand. The pastor of Roosevelt’s valet, Ernest Hall of Cleveland, wrote: “I am writing today to ask that you make provision for the successful contestants of the Olympic games in Germany to be officially received by yourself upon their return home without regard to race or color. I am certain that you are not aware of the electric effect such an action on your part will have upon the twelve million Negroes in America.”

The reply from the White House was sadly evasive and noncommittal – citing a packed schedule of trips to flooded areas over which the President had no control.

Jesse Owens nor any of the other persons of color that won medals for the United States during the 1936 Olympics were invited to the White House to be received by President Roosevelt. A myth grew out of the games stating that a humiliated Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens. Owens himself addressed the “snub” myth: “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”

Owens remained a celebrated figure to the American public, however, and in 1976, he received the highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given at the White House by President Gerald Ford.

B0973-14 600dpi scan from Original Negative

1976, August 5 – East Garden – The White House – Washington, DC – Gerald R. Ford, Jesse Owens – Owens at lectern, speaking, President Ford laughing in background – Presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jesse Owens; NAID 7062576

The award ceremony was everything that should have happened 40 years earlier. Held after the conclusion of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the White House lawn was full of Owens peers, athletes who received congratulations on their recent victories, but who came to see the greatest American Olympian receive his highest honor. Owens even had a fan in the President himself, who witnessed the record breaking day at the Big Ten meet in 1935. The official citation along with the Exchange of Remarks between the President and Jesse Owens (NAID 7345229) is below.

The Medal of Freedom citation read:

To Jesse Owens, athlete, humanitarian, speaker, author – a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sport. He is a winner who knows that winning is not everything. He has shared with others his courage, his dedication to the highest ideals of sportsmanship. His achievements have shown us all the promise of American and his faith in American has inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and for their country.

I would like to thank my colleague Kirsten Carter for supplying documents from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.


Posted in Civil Rights Protest & Issues, Tribute/News, World War II Era | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Black History Month Tribute: Dr. Walter B. Hill Jr., Archivist, Historian, and Father

Today’s Black History Tribute was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

Dr. Walter B. Hill Jr., scholar, historian, and senior archivist, opened a lot of doors to the records on African-American history during his 30-year career at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He praised NARA as “a special place for me in my professional life and my work is a testimony to the institution that allowed me to navigate the rich history of Americans, in particular African Americans.” During his tenue at the National Archives, Dr. Hill mentored many up-and-coming archivists and introduced the world to the holdings at NARA that related to black history.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Walter Hill discussing a document to D.C. area politicians.  Photograph courtesy of the author.

Dr. Hill was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his BA in History from the College of Wooster in 1971 and his MA in US History from Northern Illinois University in 1973. He received his Ph. D. in United States History in 1988, from the University of Maryland under the guidance of historian Ira Berlin. Walter Hill also taught at St. Louis University, Howard University, and the University of Maryland.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photograph courtesy of the author.

Dr. Hill began his archival career at the National Archives in 1978, where he worked in several offices, including the Office of the Archivist of the United States National Historical Publication and Records Administration, Office of the National Archives Library and Printed Archives Division, Reference Service Branch, and the Office of Textual Research Services. Hill spent his tenue at NARA looking through the vast amount of records relating to African-American history. Through his research and knowledge of the subject area, he compiled this information into articles, reference papers, and essays.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photograph courtesy of the author.

Not only was Dr. Hill dedicated to his work and colleagues within the National Archives, he was also involved with other projects relating to black history. He was the film consultant for the 1989 movie Glory and the Chief Historian of the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation. In September of 2003, Dr. Hill gave an interview for History Makers, where he reflected on his life and career. His involvement in many organizations helped expose the vast amount of federal records on African-American history and brought the National Archives into the spotlight.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Walter Hill with Historian John Hope Franklin.  Photograph courtesy of the author.

Since his passing in July 2008, Dr. Walter B. Hill, Jr. is still remembered and honored by his colleagues at both the National Archives and the many historical organizations he was involved in. In February 2009, at the annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) luncheon, Hill was honored for his dedication to the organization. Current and former NARA colleagues decided to reserve a table in his memory and it has been reserved for them at every luncheon since then.  

As his daughter, I could not be anymore proud of my late father’s accomplishments. I still hear stories about him from many of his colleagues and close friends. He walked the halls of the National Archives for 30 years and he truly opened many doors to archival records on African-American history.

Posted in Personal Experience, Tribute/News | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Black College Life in the New Deal: A Google Cultural Institute Exhibit

Today’s blog was written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park.

In celebration of Black History Month, the Google Cultural Institute has created a channel devoted to Black History and Culture. It features over 80 exhibits showcasing documents, artwork, photographs, artifacts and 5,000 other types of items relating to black history. The National Archives has contributed to the channel by creating an exhibit of our own – Black College Life in the New Deal: A Photo Exhibit through the Lens of Kenneth Space, Photographer for the Harmon Foundation.

Our exhibit (curated by myself and Tina Ligon, with great assistance from Rutha Beamon, Sharon Culley, and Theresa Roy) displays photographs from the series Kenneth Space Photographs of the Activities of Southern Black Americans, 1936-1937 (NAID 559211) in the Harmon Foundation Collection. Pictures show African American students at various historically black colleges and universities including: Howard University, Virginia Union University, Fisk University, Clark Atlanta University, Tuskegee University, Xavier University, and Dillard University.

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The photos selected in the exhibit will be the first time they are displayed as a large collection, rather than in fragments that may be shown on individual college’s websites. These records are an important highlight of the National Archives collection as they tell a story of an under represented and unique time in American history – of black students attending college during the Great Depression.

 Important Links:

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Civil War Era Tintypes: Randall Nash, USCT, Inf.

Today’s blog was written by Jesse Wilinski, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Washington, D. C.

While working on RG 15 Case Files of Approved Veterans’ Pensions Application (Civil War and Later Survivor’s Certificates), 1861-1934 series, I came across a rare object in a Civil War Pension file. It was a tintype of United States Colored Infantryman, Randall Nash. A tintype is a photograph made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel. It is a rarity to see a photograph, much less a tintype, in a pension file. When found, tintypes are generally removed from the series and stored in the specially protected vault at the National Archives at Washington, D. C.

Randall Nash's tintype along with document from the Department of the Interior

Randall Nash’s tintype along with documentation from the Department of the Interior Bureau of Pensions

Randall Nash’s unit was first designated as the 4th Regiment Colored Infantry of Missouri Volunteers and was soon renamed the 68th United States Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry. It was mustered in Liberty, Missouri on January 28, 1864 and mustered out on February 5, 1866. Over two hundred former enslaved men from across Missouri were enlisted in this unit. The 68th travelled to Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Texas, performing duties in the defense of other units.


Tintype of Randall Nash

Tintype of Randall Nash

Nash’s pension file was listed under the name of Randall Talbot, an alias. The tintype was used to identify him, because no one knew Nash by any other name in the 68th USCT. The use of aliases made it difficult for surviving family members to collect pensions. In several cases, former enslaved black men who served during the Civil War would use an alias to prevent recapture or to take on a “free” name.

Index card to request the tintype for Randall Nash. Invalid Application 1046175 Certificate 831223 Widow Application 673620 Certificate 476266

Index card to request the tintype for Randall Nash. Invalid Application 1046175 Certificate 831223
Widow Application 673620 Certificate 476266

When I found this tintype, I had pulled the pension file and scanned it at the Innovation HUB. The Innovation HUB is new way of capturing information for researchers in a digital format for free and gives the National Archives the ability to put the records online for the public to use. Since this tintype is now in the vault, it is no longer physically available to researchers, but can be accessed through digital images. For assistance with pension files and tintypes, please contact the reference staff at the National Archives at Washington, D.C.


Posted in American Civil War, Genealogy, Military | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday and Legacy

Today’s blog was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Today we celebrate the birthday and legacy of  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, who used the philosophy of nonviolent activism. King made advancements in civil rights for all people through nonviolent civil disobedience.

542015 king

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd.] (NAID 542015)

Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King came to stardom when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. In 1957, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its first president. Through SCLC, King led many struggles for civil rights throughout the South. King gained even more national attention when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Through his devotion to nonviolence and racial equality, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (NAID 299891).

In the spring of 1965, King and the SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. The first march took place on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers were attacked by state police with beatings and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of those 600 marchers was Representative John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was beaten severely during the attack. The events of “Bloody Sunday” resulted in a class action suit against Governor George Wallace and the State of Alabama brought up by Lewis, Hosea Williams, and Amelia Boynton. All three testified at the hearing and described the horrific events that took place at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. King also testified at the hearing. On page 29 of the testimony, King answered questions on how they planned the march from Selma. In one answer he stated, “Well, we started having mass meetings; we felt that we had to do something to arouse people all over the community…” After an objection from one of the lawyers, King continued to describe how they held mass and ward meetings in Dallas County.

In the end, the court approved a plan and guarded the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On March 21, 1965, around 8,000 people began the march from Selma arriving at the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25th. The publicity of the lawsuit and the second march inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (NAID 299909).

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The file of Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Amelia Boynton v. Governor George Wallace (NAID 643802) is part of the series Civil Cases, 09/1938 – 11/26/1968 (NAID 279193), at the National Archives of Atlanta. The Southeast Region Archives holds many U.S. District Court files pertaining to civil rights cases from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina. For more information, please visit the National Archives at Atlanta website.

In the final years of his life, King focused on poverty, the Vietnam War, as well as the rights of African-American workers. He was planning the Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated in April 1968. His legacy continues to be inspirational in the United States and around the world. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor him; it was first observed on January 20, 1986 and continues to be observed on the third Monday of January every year.

11/2/1983 President Reagan and Signing Ceremony for Martin Luther King Holiday Legislation in the rose garden with Coretta Scott King George Bush Howard Baker Bob Dole Jack Kemp Samuel Pierce Katie Hall looking on (NAID 6728680)

President Reagan and Signing Ceremony for Martin Luther King Holiday Legislation in the rose garden with Coretta Scott King George Bush Howard Baker Bob Dole Jack Kemp Samuel Pierce Katie Hall looking on (NAID 6728680)


Posted in Anniversary, Civil Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lynching of Women in United States Blog Series Part 1: The Lynching of Sisters Eula and Ella Charles

This blog was written by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Management and Program Analyst in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

This will be the first blog post on a series of blogs on the lynching of women in the United States.

Lynching remains one of the most disturbing and least understood atrocities in American history.  During the Postbellum and Reconstruction periods, mob violence in the South became a tool for maintaining the racial order. African-American men, women, and children now comprised the majority of victims of lynch mobs and lynchings assumed an increasingly sadistic nature.

Between 1837 and 1946, 173 women were victims of white mob violence in the United States. Of the 173 women lynched: 144 were African American, 25 were white, 3 were Mexican, and 1 was Native American. 164 of these women met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs in the South. Women, who moved outside the well-defined boundaries of the rigid moral and social order of the Post-Reconstruction period, were challenging the cult of true womanhood and the domination of white males and sex-role mandates. In extreme situations, women who would not conform were lynched.

There are case files on the lynching of women in Georgia, found in Record Group 60 General Records of the Department of Justice and RG 65 Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the these records you will find correspondence, newspaper clippings, telegrams, petitions, and resolutions from ordinary Americans as well as notable anti-lynching and civil rights activists and organizations relating to the lynching of African Americans in the United States. Continue reading

Posted in African-American Women, Civil Rights Protest & Issues, Post-Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Long Siege”: Thurgood Marshall’s Other Court Nomination Battle

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.

Photograph of Thurgood Marshall (NAID 2803441)

Photograph of Thurgood Marshall (NAID 2803441)

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.

President Kennedy meets with Augustus F. Hawkins (center) and Louis Martin (right) in the Oval Office, August 22, 1962. Please credit: "Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston."

President Kennedy meets with Augustus F. Hawkins (center) and Louis Martin (right) in the Oval Office, August 22, 1962. Please credit: “Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston.”

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.”

Letter from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to President John F. Kennedy; the handwritten note indicates the letter was sent to the Senate on September 23, 1961. [JFKWHCFCHRON-014-009-p0131]

Letter from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to President John F. Kennedy; the handwritten note indicates the letter was sent to the Senate on September 23, 1961. [JFKWHCFCHRON-014-009-p0131]

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.

Telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr. [JFKWHCNF-1736-004-p0014]

Telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr. [JFKWHCNF-1478-015-p0015]

Telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

Letters from the general public protesting the government’s inaction on the Marshall nomination. [JFKWHCNF-1736-004-p0027]

Letters from the general public protesting the government’s inaction on the Marshall nomination. [JFKWHCNF-1736-004-p0027]

Letters from the general public urging presidential action to push Thurgood Marshall’s nomination through the subcommittee. [JFKWHCNF-1736-004-p0008]

Letters from the general public urging presidential action to push Thurgood Marshall’s nomination through the subcommittee. [JFKWHCNF-1736-004-p0008]

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.

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