With the support of the leading law firm Hinckley Allen, RWU Law sponsored the sixth Thurgood Marshall Lecture last week. (Previous speakers in the series include Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow http://law.rwu.edu/blog/harvard-law-dean-martha-minow-delivers-thurgood-marshall-memorial-lecture and Eric Holder, now US Attorney General.)
This year’s talk was given by Randall Kennedy, the Klein Professor of Law at Harvard, who served as Justice Marshall’s law clerk before he joined the Harvard faculty. And what a talk it was! A dynamic speaker, he shared fascinating stories that most of the audience had never heard before. Here are a few of the highlights:
It turns out that Justice Marshall, from his days as a practicing lawyer, had a back channel relationship with the FBI and its powerful leader J. Edgar Hoover. Such a connection worked to his advantage by securing the release of a black minister who had been kidnapped, likely by the Klan.
Indeed, Prof. Kennedy identified a deep sense of pragmatism that motivated Marshall in many ways. For example, Marshall made it clear to his law clerks that he would not tolerate lateness or the slightest error in written work. Turns out that when he was practicing law, and was turning in a brief to a clerk of court in a small southern town, he heard the clerk say “I can always tell a n****r brief because of the errors,” so he expected perfection in all that he did and all that was done for him.
Then there was the story of the “Pickaninny Peppermints.” After receiving a letter indicating that the black community believed the candy (both the name and the picture on the wrapper) had negative racial connotations, Marshall wrote a series of letters urging the candy company to change the name of the candy and the design of the wrapper. Although the company initially denied that the candy was racist, Marshall was eventually successful in persuading the company to make the requested changes.
While the stories Professor Kennedy told were riveting, one theme that he kept coming back to was how Marshall’s life was shaped by years and years of law practice before he entered public service; fresh out of law school, he “hung a shingle” in his hometown of Baltimore, and took whatever cases came through the door. He also travelled the south, meeting with all sorts of people and handling all sorts of cases. He was a lawyer’s lawyer —“Mr. Civil Rights” even before he ascended to the federal bench. Here is how Professor Kennedy summed this up: “In all of our history there has been no better model than Thurgood Marshall of a life dedicated to justice through the practice of law.”
Here are some pictures from that significant day.