The late Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice and a major civil rights leader, secretly gave the FBI information on the rights movement in the 1950s despite his outspoken disdain for the bureau, FBI documents indicate.
Even as Marshall risked his personal safety to lead court fights to guarantee minorities equal access to schools, housing, public transportation and voting polls, he privately informed the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, about forces of violence and communism within the civil rights movement, according to entries in a 1,300-page FBI file on Marshall.
The assertions, first reported Monday by USA Today and contained in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, swiftly provoked shock and anger among Marshall’s friends and colleagues, with some wondering about their accuracy.
The FBI records indicate that in 1956, two years after Marshall won the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that declared school segregation unconstitutional, he warned Hoover’s bureau that the NAACP was poised to vote on a resolution in which the civil rights group would criticize the Justice Department.
At the time, Marshall was 17 years into his tenure as director of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which the NAACP founded in 1939.
In 1959, the FBI files indicate, Marshall provided the bureau with information on a group of civil rights activists in North Carolina who were advocating violence.
Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI obtained word from an informant in the 1940s that Marshall associated with the National Lawyer’s Guild, which the bureau considered a communist front. The bureau’s file on Marshall also refers to a picture of an official of the American Communist Party giving Marshall a check to support his civil rights work.
The FBI released its classified file on Marshall in response to a request that USA Today filed three years ago under the Freedom of Information Act. The bureau Monday advised other news organization to file similar requests to obtain the documents, which were compiled over three decades.
“It’s very startling material,” said James O. Freedman, president of Dartmouth College, who maintained a 30-year friendship with Marshall after serving as his law clerk at the Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
But with no independent substantiation for the FBI assertions, Freedman, echoing others, described the information as “an invitation to an inquiry rather than the final result of an inquiry.”
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, in a prepared statement, said Marshall “was a stalwart fighter for civil rights whose heroic deeds and great leadership made this country better for all Americans. Those interested in Marshall’s relationship with the FBI should be careful about speculation and wait until all the facts are presented.”
President John Kennedy nominated Marshall to the Court of Appeals in 1961, and President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court six years later. He died in 1993 at age 84.
Marshall’s oldest son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., a top aide to Vice President Al Gore, was quoted by USA Today as describing Marshall’s apparent cooperation with Hoover an “ironic twist,” considering Marshall’s previously noted scorn for Hoover.
The younger Marshall and other family members declined Monday through a spokeswoman for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., to comment on the assertions. “They want a chance to really review the documents before they comment,” Gwen McKinney said.
But Rep. William L. Clay, a Missouri Democrat and senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the assertions likely fabrications.
“I wouldn’t believe a damn thing Hoover’s FBI would say about any black leader,” Clay said. “He was the biggest racist ever to exist in this country.”
Marshall disdained Hoover for what he considered his bigoted practices and policies during his nearly 50-year rule of the FBI, according to Carl T. Rowan’s biography of him, “Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall.”
To Hoover, black leaders from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. were often dangers to national security, and he went to extraordinary - and often illegal - lengths to discredit them. He relied on wiretaps, informants, innuendo and other sources to compile damaging dossiers on the leaders and their organizations.
Like most American leaders, including several presidents, Marshall may have feared Hoover as much as he hated him, suspecting he had compiled or concocted information that could ruin him.
Rowan, in his biography, wrote that Marshall “held Hoover in such contempt” that he would not even give the director the satisfaction of agreeing when Hoover suggested during a private meeting that the nation should strengthen its laws to prevent blacks from being lynched.
Yet, according to a 1961 memo in Marshall’s FBI dossier, Marshall “conferred with the bureau on several occasions in connection with his efforts to combat communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP.”
Rowan made no reference in his book to Marshall’s purported cooperation with Hoover. And the FBI files provided no clear reason why Marshall would cooperate.
“I certainly don’t see him going to the FBI for relief of any kind,” Clay said. “Besides, the FBI had already infiltrated every civil rights group. They probably knew more than Marshall did anyway.”
Several of Marshall’s supporters suggested that if he did cooperate with the FBI, his motive may have been to protect the civil rights effort in its relatively nascent stages.
“Justice Marshall was obviously a realist and a fierce defender of the Legal and Educational Fund,” Freedman said.