Thurgood Marshall: The Legacy and Limits of Equality Under the Law
in African American Political Thought: A Collected History, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner, 2021.
The historic nature of Thurgood Marshall’s legal victories and jurisprudence have often obscured a deeper exploration of his broader political vision. Although Marshall never authored an authoritative manuscript describing his political commitments, a close examination of his personal correspondences, legal strategies, popular publications, and judicial decisions reveals a commitment to a racial democratic vision that emphasized equality under the law and fair incorporation into the existing economic order as central to advancing black political interests. Marshall’s embrace of racial democracy put him at odds with several of his contemporaries including Ralph Bunche, Oliver Cox, and Bayard Rustin. This group argued that mass organizing and the transformation of the economic order were key to addressing the subordinate position of black people in the United States. This chapter traces the contributions of Marshall to the debate over the requirements of equality, democracy, and black advancement within black political thought. Marshall’s pivotal role in helping to consolidate the Civil Rights Movement around a racial democratic vision led to sweeping advances in the political and legal rights of black Americans, but also helped sideline black voices pushing for a more economically egalitarian political program.
Thurgood Marshall: Law, Equality, and Democracy in Black Political Thought (under contract with Polity Press)
Marshall the jurist reveals a clear and distinct political vision. Contextualizing Marshall’s vision through a comparison with several of his contemporaries exposes an active confrontation with other visions of equality and democracy. Exploring the divided nature of black intellectuals at the time of Marshall’s greatest legal triumphs helps illuminate just how consequential Marshall’s strategic and tactical approach to advancing his political vision was in the consolidation of a postwar consensus in black politics.Although Marshall’s tireless efforts and towering courtroom victories undoubtedly improved the condition of millions of Americans, confronting the full range of Marshall’s legacy requires grappling with the very real limits of his political vision. Understanding Marshall as a political figure reveals the ways in which his legacy extends well beyond the courtroom and continues to influence how we talk about race, inequality, and political strategy today.