Thurgood Marshall Letters Reveal Importance of Grassroots Activism
“The action you get depends upon the extent to which you are organized”
It is unsurprising that Thurgood Marshall, pioneering civil-rights attorney, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and Supreme Court justice, is best known for his legislative and courtroom advocacy.
The following letters, housed in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, however, reveal much about Marshall’s integrated approach to advocacy, giving precedence to collective action and grassroots organizing.
While litigation and policy reform were undoubtedly central to his work, sole focus on his involvement in judicial victories like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ignores other aspects of Marshall’s pioneering methodology, and limits any interpretation of his significance to the twentieth century civil rights movement. The correspondence contained in the Archive, from witnesses, victims’ relatives and local community leaders, crucially expands our understanding of Marshall’s legacy.
The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, chancellor and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these newly unearthed stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.
Marshall founded the LDF in 1940, and as a practicing attorney argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them — more than any other person. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967. During his 24-year term as Supreme Court justice, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions. Most historians regard him as one of the most influential figures in shaping social policies and building the country’s anti-discrimination legal infrastructure.
Marshall’s correspondence from the archive reveals his support for grassroots groups, which, together with local networks of NAACP chapters, he saw as central to the Black rights movements of his day.
In the case of Clifton McCrae (NAACP Records, Box IIB113, Folder 9, Legal File, Police Brutality) letters reveal Marshall’s mission to encourage locals to organize for themselves, and their courage to do so.
I love my race. I will fight to the very last for my race to have freedom. Please do something good to help this colored race,
Thomas Fletcher Brown wrote to Marshall two days after a young man, thought to be in possession of a pistol, was shot and killed in 1941 by an officer named Honeycutt in Clio, Marlboro County, South Carolina. Brown detailed how Honeycutt approached McCrae and beat him in the street for no apparent reason. According to Brown, Honeycutt then attempted to search McCrae, who reached into his shirt, allegedly to retrieve a weapon. The officer shot McCrae five times, laughing over him as he lay dying, wrote Brown.
“I love my race. I will fight to the very last for my race to have freedom. Please do something good to help this colored race,” implored Brown, who expressed concern about retaliation for writing to Marshall.
The importance of local, grassroots organizing is again stressed by Marshall in his letters regarding the murder of Willie Young (NAACP Records, Box I C279, Folder 2, Admin Subject File, Police Brutality).
Willie Young, a 24-year-old waiter, was killed in 1939 by police officer, Albert Hoxie in Warren County, Mississippi. Fearful for his safety should his correspondence be intercepted, but confident that Marshall would take action, W. L. Byrd reported Young’s murder in a letter to Marshall.
Byrd described how Young was shot by officer Hoxie “without any cause whatsoever,” and without being arrested. Available records suggest Hoxie was never held accountable for this murder.
“It’s awful down here. We are like birds when a hawk comes. I have been reporting some things to you for some time. I have never failed to get results,” wrote Byrd.
If you can gather the Negroes of Vicksburg together … we will be happy to instruct them as to the methods of protecting their rights.
In his reply, Marshall acknowledged the difficulties in prosecuting such a case “in the absence of a strong group of Negroes in the community willing to take their share of the fight to secure full rights for the Negro.” Marshall signed-off by urging Boyd to assess the feasibility of creating a NAACP branch in Vicksburg, which Marshall said he would support.
By 1913, four years after its founding and with a strong emphasis on local organizing, the NAACP had branch offices in major cities including Baltimore, MD, Boston, MA, Detroit, MI, and Washington, D.C. NAACP membership grew tenfold between 1917 and 1919 to around 90,000, with more than 300 local branches. Throughout the 1940s, the NAACP saw enormous growth in membership, recording roughly 400,000 members by 1946.
Marshall’s belief in the power of organizing is communicated with particular clarity in his correspondence with S.C. Smith, president of The Pilots Club in Goldsboro, North Carolina. (NAACP Records, Box IIB49, Folder 7, Legal file – Crime)
Smith wrote a letter to Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, a few weeks after the 1939 Christmas-day-killing of John D. Sutton, a 17-year-old farm worker, shot by a white farmer in Seven Springs, Wayne County, North Carolina. Sutton went to the home of a farmer, Earl Stroud, to collect payment for work he had done on the farm. The two argued over payment and Sutton returned to his home. Later that evening, still harboring his frustrations from that day’s encounter, Stroud hunted down Sutton, and the two fought once more. Stroud shot Sutton with the teenager’s own gun. Arrested for manslaughter, Stroud claimed self-defense. The farmer was indicted by a grand jury, but there is no evidence that he was ever prosecuted.
The only way to get prosecution of a white man for killing a Negro is for the Negroes in that vicinity to be so well organized as to be in a position to demand protection.
In his letter to Smith, Marshall wrote:
“The only way to get prosecution of a white man for killing a Negro is for the Negroes in that vicinity to be so well organized as to be in a position to demand protection. … The action you get depends on the extent to which you are organized.”
These letters, held in the Burnham-Noble Digital Archive, reveal Marshall’s ardent belief in the power of grassroots organizing and collective action. Moreover, they speak to the urgent calls to the NAACP to intervene in the racial violence that shaped Black life in these small towns. This evidence offers a window into the practices of Marshall as an organizer, broadening our lens on his legacy.
Above: Photo of Thurgood Marshall. Original black and white negative by Thomas J. O’Halloran. Taken September 17th, 1957, Washington D.C, United States. Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
More from the Archive...
The history of racialized violence during the Jim Crow era is elevated and preserved in the letters housed in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
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