We Can All Be Social Engineers.

7 mins read

Information for this post is from Book 6 in my Making of America series:

Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908. His interest in law, and his awareness of racial injustice was awakened early. A window in one of his high school classrooms faced the local police station. He listened as the all-white police force questioned suspects, who were mostly African American (Screenshot from the book):

After college, Marshall wanted to go to the University of Maryland Law School but was denied admission because of his race.

So he enrolled at Howard University just as Charles Houston took over as dean.

Burning inside Houston was pent-up rage at Jim Crow and the injustices suffered by African Americans. He trained his students to become social engineers:

Marshall graduated at the top of his law school class and became a civil rights lawyer. He successfully sued the University of Maryland, and forced them to admit black students. (He enjoyed that one).

One of his most harrowing experiences was an encounter with Tennessee police in 1946. He’d been summoned to Tennessee defend 25 African-Americans who had been wrongly charged with assault and attempted murder. He and a team of lawyers got the charges dropped for two of the defendants, and obtained not guilty verdicts for 23 of the 25.

The two remaining were entitled to a new trial because of errors.

The amazing Professor Carol Anderson has a video about the incident:https://www.youtube.com/embed/qeCjvqFKxMo?feature=oembed

The local police were enraged by the verdicts.

Marshall and his team left town the moment the court adjourned.

They were out of the town on their way to Nashville when they realized they were being followed by a patrol car.

The police stopped them three times. The third time, Marshall was riding in the back seat. The police arrested him for drunk “driving.” They put him in the patrol car and took him back to Columbia.

The patrol car careened off the road toward a river. Marshall was sure they would kill him. His pals, the other lawyers, though, were following right behind the police car.

So the patrol car turned back to town and took Marshall to the magistrate.

“He doesn’t look drunk to me,” said the magistrate.

The Magistrate determined that Marshall wasn’t drunk and let him go. He met up with his buddies. A group of locals figured out how to smuggle the lawyers safely out of town. 

Marshall is best known for being the “social engineer” behind Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that ended racial segregation in America and sparked the modern Civil Rights movement.

The women’s movement followed from (and by some accounts, arose from) the Civil Rights Movement, powered by black women (like Pauli Murray) who led the civil rights charge. 

In August of 1957 Marshall was called to Little Rock for an emergency. Violence was about to erupt. The reason? Nine African American students planned to enroll in the all-white Central High School. 

The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Eugene Faubus, said if any African American children tried to enter the school, “blood would run in the street.”

On the first day of class, when the first black student arrived, a mob surrounded her and shouted “Lynch her, lynch her!” She was saved by a white woman who shielded her until she could run away from the school for safety.

The mob attacked reporters and African Americans in the vicinity. 

Journalists filmed the footage of the jeering crowds.

Nancy Maclean, in her book, Democracy In Chains, talks about how the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education fueled a “libertarian” backlash. Today we are still riding the backlash from Brown v Board.

In 1967, LBJ appointed Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice.

Marshall lived long enough to watch the backlash gathering momentum. He watched as an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court unraveled much of his life’s work.

I used to think the arc of history looked like this:


I imagined US history as an arc bending toward greater justice as more people come to be included in “we the people.”

Now I understand that other people see American history in a completely different way. Another group, who we might call reactionaries, look back longingly to our nation’s founding, when, in their view, things were better.

And what were things like? Privileged white men had almost complete personal liberty. The frontier was a place white men could grab land. all white men could grab land. Laws protected the liberties of white men and maintained the hierarchy (white men at the top, black women at the bottom). Before modern rape and sexual harassment laws, they could grab women. Before federal agencies and regulations, they could manipulate markets.

The reactionaries see American history like this:

Now I understand that each bit of progress brings an angry backlash. I understand that people who love hierarchy and don’t believe equality is possible will always be with us. We push forward, and the reactionaries push backward. We build agencies, we create rules for fairness, they hate the agencies and break the rules. So in fact, the graph looks like this:

It never ends, unless we all give up.

In memory of Thurgood Marshall we must all become social engineers.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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