Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Vision

BOND: When did you think about becoming a lawyer? What kind of career plans did you have early on?

MARSH: I wanted to be a truck driver. In a rural area, the only thing I could see was trucks moving up and down the road. And that looked exciting. My uncle was an oysterman. He was 6'8" – 260 pounds. He had to lift tongs down into the riverbed. I knew I couldn't do that. And the other people around me were farmers. They got up at four in the morning, worked till sundown. I didn't want to do that. But truck drivers, that looked exciting. So I grew up wanting to be a truck driver because that was the only thing I knew that looked different from what I didn't want to do.

BOND: How did being a lawyer come to you?

MARSH: When I was in high school I heard about Oliver Hill in Richmond. And I was curious. And a bunch of us went down to a court case in Richmond where he was arguing -- he and Spot Robinson were arguing a case. And I was impressed. I decided then that, "Hey, that's what I'd like to do." As I continued, when I got to college I saw him again. I decided, "I know that's what I want to do." That's when I decided I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.

BOND: You saw him in the Assembly.

MARSH: But that was later when I was a senior in college. Virginia was – a year and a half after Brown, Virginia was in the middle of this massive resistance effort. And I read in the paper that the General Assembly was going to consider a plan to frustrate desegregation. So I went down and testified. I was the only student, and there were thirty-six adults. I represented the student government of Virginia Union University. Mr. Hill represented the state NAACP -- state conference. He was masterful. He was already at his best. I mean, there was one hundred and forty legislators, all men, all white men, all elderly white men. No women, no young people. And they were assembled in one room in what they call a Joint Session. Mr. Hill stood there and shook his fist and dared them to pass these laws. And I was frightened frankly. I said, "What is he doing?" And then when he'd bang his fists on a desk and said, "If you do this, we're gonna beat you." I looked for a place to hide because I knew they were going to haul him away. But he was intent and his temple was throbbing. And whenever Oliver gets excited his temple starts throbbing. It was a masterful speech. So I got up and made my speech on behalf of the student body. When I finished Oliver came over and patted me on the shoulder. Said, "Good talk, young man." Said, "What are you going to do when you grow up?" He said -- I said, "Well, I want to be a lawyer." He said, "Well, why don't you come and work with me? I need some help." I was a college student. I said, "Okay," and we shook hands. I had a job. Little did I know, that was my future law partner.

BOND: What did you say that day? What was your speech about?

MARSH: I was angry.

BOND: Did you have written remarks or did you -- ?

MARSH: No. I spoke from the gut. I had been brought up with interracial dialogue groups – the National Conference of Christians and Jews had dialogue going on between blacks and whites. I was --

BOND: High school, college?

MARSH: This was college. I was impressed that white – young, white people and I were communicating. We were making progress. When Brown came along, all of a sudden they cut out the dialogue. Just like the Urban League was closed down. The white people drew support from the Urban League. I mean, it was awful, and I was frustrated because I thought that this was wrong. And so when I read in the paper what was going on and these people were actually being unlawful. So I went down and expressed my indignation over what was going on and said that this was wrong and that we, the people, didn't want this. I urged them on behalf of the students because it's our future. I said, "It's our country and you shouldn't do this. You should follow the law." And you know, the newspaper reported it the next day. They had thirty-six adults and one student spoke. Of course, the president called me at Virginia Union. I thought he was going to lay me out. He said, "You didn't get my permission to go down and speak." And I said, "Well, no sir. I wasn't representing the college. I was representing student government. I'm president of student government."

BOND: I'm sure you were already --

MARSH: I had already checked with my officers to make sure they would back me up. He said, "Yeah, but, you know, we are supported by trustees and they are prominent people in the community. You should have checked with me. It so happened they called me and they were very proud of what you did and they were pleased that Virginia Union was represented." He said, "But, you know, next time, you check with me." So I said, "Dr. [Thomas H.] Henderson, if I had check with you what would you have told me?" He smiled and chuckled. He said, "Well, next time you check with me." So I knew I had done the right thing.

BOND: Did you get any kind of negative comment about this appearance?


BOND: None at all?

MARSH: No. No, the students were pleased and Dr. Henderson was pleased. And I felt good about it. At least I'd done something.

BOND: Next step for you then is law school.

MARSH: Right.

BOND: And how did you decide on a law school?

MARSH: Well, I applied at University of Virginia. And they were about to consider African American students. So they sent me a letter back saying that you have to spend a hundred dollars to take a test to see if you have the aptitude to attend law school. I also applied at Howard. They wrote me back and said, "You're accepted. We have a scholarship for you. Because you're a Virginia resident the state of Virginia will pay us $150 or $200 a semester to educate you, and we'll help you get a part-time job if you need to." So I accepted Howard, just like that. I mean, it was an easy choice, and it was the best thing ever happened to me because I was thrown in with other African American students and future leaders who from all over the South. And that helped my development and that helped my growth.