Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of the Civil Rights Movement

BOND: Now, from the things I've read and other people I've talked to who had the same experiences, this strikes me that the atmosphere at the law school must have been full of civil rights. That even though lawyers do all kinds of things -- criminal law and corporate law and real estate law and all -- it just seems to me like civil rights is just permeating the atmosphere. Is that your memory?

MARSH: Especially during those years. That was between '56 and '59. So Howard University was the place chosen for the dry runs for the Supreme Court cases. We had the opportunity to sit in on dry run arguments by Thurgood and Dean [James] Nabritt and others. It was a wonderful experience. In fact, the Shuttlesworth case --

BOND: Tell me a typical example.

MARSH: The Shuttlesworth case was a good example. In 1959, the Supreme Court had a chance on a summary judgment motion to declare segregation illegal -- to end the resistance. It was like a preemptive strike. They denied it. They wouldn't -- they denied relief in that case, which meant that that was another opportunity to end this separate but equal, all deliberate speed foolishness. I mean "all deliberate speed" is a really misnomer because Constitutional rights are personal and immediate. Everybody knows that. So when you say "all deliberate speed," which means we're going to postpone your personal and immediate Constitutional rights. So when Shuttlesworth came along the Supreme Court had a chance to abandon that, and they didn't.

BOND: What was the Shuttlesworth case about?

MARSH: It was a summary judgment case on segregation, the coming and going out of a case in Alabama.

BOND: Fred Shuttlesworth.

MARSH: Fred Shuttlesworth was the plaintiff.

BOND: They had a moot court in effect about this?

MARSH: On the Supreme Court argument. They had a dry run of the Supreme Court argument.

BOND: So what would happen? Tell me --

MARSH: The lawyers would argue both sides and someone would be the justice and would ask questions and we had a chance to hear both sides and then we heard a critique afterwards. So I knew that the Supreme Court was given an opportunity to dismantle segregation again, which they turned down.

BOND: Now, as a student do you get to participate? Did you get to ask questions or were you just an on-looker?

MARSH: We were on-lookers. These were lawyers. Twenty-five or thirty of the top civil rights lawyers in the country. We were just on-lookers and we didn't have a chance to --

BOND: That's got to be a great learning experience for you.

MARSH: Oh, it was tremendous, tremendous. You know what made it so helpful later on? I took cases to the Supreme Court and gave them an opportunity to dismantle segregation and they did the same thing. In 1965, I took Bradley v. the City of Richmond to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court outlawed faculty segregation but didn't say anything about the so-called freedom of choice. So that was a second chance they had to dismantle segregation, which told me something about the Supreme Court. And then in 1968, Mr. [Samuel W.] Tucker and I took Green v. New Kent up there. And finally they said, "Now means now. Dismantle it now." But I mean, root, branch and burrow. But it was '68 as opposed to '54. They had fourteen years -- the Supreme Court gave the South to get ready for Brown. That was one reason why I decided to go into politics because the legal process was so slow, and I felt frustrated that we finally had a decision and the Supreme Court keeps giving them more, and more, and more time. So I said, "This stuff will never end this way."

BOND: One thing that happens in the big movement for civil rights between the Brown case and your becoming a lawyer -- well, is that more opportunities for more people to participate in this movement in more kinds of ways come up, the sit-ins come along.


BOND: And all of a sudden you don't have to be a lawyer to argue a case. You can put your body there and get arrested and go to jail. The Freedom Rides -- the Boynton case produces the Freedom Rides. It becomes possible -- you don't have to be a lawyer. You can get on the bus, and so the areas of participation are much wider. But this also means that lawyers have much more business -- civil rights business -- to handle. Now what did this change in the business? It used to be that you'd file a lawsuit against some aggrieved wrong, perceived wrong. But now, people are creating wrongs and bringing them to you and saying, "Help me. I've been arrested for something." How does that change in your -- or does it change?

MARSH: Civil rights lawyers rarely made a good living. Most of these were people who were committed. When Sam Tucker and I inherited Oliver [Hill]'s law practice in 1961, we handled school cases for a couple years before we even thought about submitting a bill to anyone. The Legal Defense Fund was subsidizing the cases to a certain extent, and when we'd finally submit the bill it was two years after we'd been handling cases. And they reimbursed us on the basis of $50 per day for a case. You know, lawyers were making $100 an hour. We didn't care. I mean, most civil rights lawyers weren't involved for the money. In fact, they could have engaged in personal injury practice and other things that made more money. What the Civil Rights Movement was, it was such a volume of litigation and because of the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund there were some resources available to take care of expenses.

BOND: How would you keep your office open?

MARSH: We got other business from time to time. And the stipend – what we called the stipend – from the Fund. And finally we generated a notion called "attorneys' fees." That was generated in our office. The school board was so obstinate and so hostile. What happened was – it reminds me of Florida now – they took the application forms and moved them so that the parents had to run around the county. They couldn't get the forms to apply to the white schools. And we finally got the case to court, we said, "Look, why should the plaintiffs have to pay lawyers to go to court to get what these defendants are hiding from them?" So the court came up with – said because of endured obstinacy – the defendant has to pay the fees. And that was the first case that allowed attorneys' fees in civil rights cases. Eventually it was adopted by HEW, and attorneys' fees became a part of the law. But that started in our office.