Noted Civil Rights Activist Dies

During a White House ceremony to present the 1999 Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Awards, Monday, Dec. 6, 1999, President Clinton applauded the work of Burke Marshall of New Haven, CT.
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for

When the definitive history of the Civil Rights movement in America is written years from now, when all of its main actors are long dead, the focus inevitably will be upon the pioneers, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith and Rosa Parks, and the politicians, Robert and John Kennedy, George Wallace, and Ross Barnett. Once again, I suspect and fear, Burke Marshall will be relegated to footnotes.

That would be a shame, for few people in the nation's turbulent history of the 1960s were as important to the realization of an integrated nation than Burke Marshall, who died Monday at the age of 80. Marshall was assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's civil rights division in the Kennedy Administration. The New York Times, in an appropriate front-page obituary, called him "the government's legal strategist." But that hardly describes the hands-on, hands-dirty role Marshall played during one crisis after another a generation ago.

Marshall fought, on the ground and not in some stuffy office, to integrate public places of accommodation and the University of Mississippi. He called to look after King when the latter was jailed in Alabama. He helped calm nerves after the Birmingham church bombing. He was involved in ensuring the 1963 March on Washington was peaceful. He was the man whom blacks called when they wanted to offer examples of "southern justice." If the Kennedys and King were the faces of the movement, Marshall was its legal legs; a Yale-educated foot soldier whose job description required him to negotiate directly and persistently and persuasively with the main actors in the unfolding drama that was the South in the early 1960s.

In his book "Portrait of a Decade," Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist Anthony Lewis described Marshall this way in 1964, even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which Marshall, naturally, helped pass: "Marshall toured the South when there was no crisis, talking quietly to leaders of opinion about the changes that were coming irresistibly." After the world saw the images of police dogs ripping into civil rights marchers, Lewis wrote, "Burke Marshall went down to Birmingham, somehow got the leaders of the white community to at least listen to the Negro complaints and arranged the truce that eased an extremely dangerous situation and opened the way for gradual desegregation."

During the heat of the action, Lewis chronicled, Marshall spoke out about why seemingly minor fights during that time mattered in a big way: "The domestic tranquility is at stake, for the Negro cause against discrimination is indivisible. When Negroes are excluded from participation in their government in even one county and state authority is twisted to make it happen, while federal authority appears powerless to take effective steps, the gulf between Negroes and whites everywhere is widened, and the chances of racial conflict increased. At the least, the generation of students that sees this take place are to some extent losing faith in their government, with consequences for the future that cannot be foreseen."

And Marshall, the lawyer, also offered in Lewis's book a searing glimpse of what the criminal justice system looked like then: "It is difficult for anyone concerned with corruption of the law to say that corrections are not needed. Negro disenfranchisement over decades has created a system of all-white courts staffed by all-white officialdom. The apparent inability of the bar to bring itself to provide counsel in case with racial implications is by itself one proof that our basic assumptions about the workings of justice in state courts are wrong. The unavailability of normal sources of bail is another. Examples of abuse of authority are a third. They are compounded by repeated exclusion of Negroes from juries, enforced segregation and racial abuses in courtrooms and other evidences of the weight of state authority thrusting imbalance into the processes of justice where racial customs are threatened."

It's hard to find a book about the civil rights struggle that doesn't at one point or another mention Burke Marshall. For example, in Paul Hendrickson's fine new book, "Sons of Mississippi," Marshall pops up. So to in Diane McWhorter's award-winning account of Birmingham's civil rights' struggle in 1963, "Carry me Home." Here's hoping that history doesn't forget one of nation's most dedicated public servants and the role he played in bringing about one of the most important societal changes America has ever experienced.

By Andrew Cohen