Thurgood Marshall's Historic Appointment

On this day 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to a seat on the Supreme Court. Marshall was the first African American appointed to the high court. The selection tested the close friendship between Marshall and Johnson.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Today marks the anniversary of another dramatic moment in Supreme Court history. On this day, 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson nominated then-Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall to a seat on the Supreme Court. He was the first African-American nominee and went on to become the first African-American justice. Here's how President Johnson summed up his decision to nominate Thurgood Marshall.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: I believe he earned his appointment. He deserves the appointment. He's the best qualified by training and by very valuable service to the country. I believe it's the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.

COHEN: Here now to talk about that appointment is NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams, who wrote the biography, "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary." Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Alex.

COHEN: There was a lot going on when President Johnson made that nomination. Give us a sense of that time and place and what was at stake for these two men in June of 1967.

WILLIAMS: Well, there was tremendous racial tumult in the country. You think back, Alex, to the riots of '65, the riots of '67, all over the country; the civil rights movement prompting the sort of leading edge of racial tension over rights. And it's in that atmosphere that President Johnson decides he wants to be the first president to put a black person on the Supreme Court. And in fact, you know, if you think back just to the nomination of Marshall to the court, it was such an amazing barrier-breaking moment for America.

COHEN: Let's listen now to some tape of Thurgood Marshall recalling the moment when he found out that he was Johnson's choice for the high court.

Justice THURGOOD MARSHALL: All of a sudden he just looked at me and said, You know something, Thurgood? I said, No, sir, what's that? He said, I'm going to put you on the Supreme Court. And I (unintelligible) what did you say? And he said, That's it.

COHEN: Juan, in your book you say that Marshall's literal reaction at the time was to say, Oh, yipe.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

COHEN: I just love that. That's not a phrase you hear too often anymore. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship that these two men had with each other?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, on a personal level, Alex, it was so interesting because these are guys who would drink - and this is a drink I don't think that you or I could imagine - Coca Cola and bourbon. Talk about something that's syrupy. They would sit and swap tales and stories. They were both really, you know, (unintelligible) types, larger than life personalities. So they had that kind of natural good chemistry about them.

The second thing to be said is that the politics really appealed to them. I mean this was Johnson putting himself on the line, Johnson making a statement. For example, at the time when he had just appointed Marshall to be the solicitor general of the United States - they held a conference on race relations - and the president came in, everyone thought he was going to give a speech; in fact, what he does is he introduces his solicitor general, Thurgood Marshall, and he says Marshall represents the best of American society of an orderly social process, as someone who represents law and order. Clearly a statement in contrast of the militants and the people who are out there rioting and from Marshall's point of view encouraging anarchy in American society because of racial tensions.

And then Thurgood Marshall stands up, Alex, and he starts to cry right there in front of the audience, his arm around President Johnson, and say, You would never heard a president of the United States say anything like that about someone like me 30 years ago. And I think that's really representative of how close these two were.

COHEN: But their relationship changed somewhat once Marshall actually took on the job. What happened?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think Justice Marshall felt the need almost right away to make it clear that he was not simply in Johnson's hip pocket. He wanted to be independent, even as he was so dependent on Johnson, not only for the nomination, but to get approved and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

COHEN: And Juan, was that the end of their friendship?

WILLIAMS: No. What you also have to understand here is that even after Marshall makes that statement, you know, right away - we're not going to be bosom buddies - he has to rely on Johnson's political skills in the course of this two and a half month period before he is confirmed for the seat on the Supreme Court. And let's recall, the final vote in the Marshall nomination to the Supreme Court was 69-11.

You had 20 Southern senators who were persuaded by President Johnson to simply not vote because they feared that a vote for a black man to sit on the Supreme Court with mean that they would lose elections subsequently. That's an important part of this story, Johnson's political skill in advancing Marshall, even as Marshall was trying to say that he was independent of Johnson.

COHEN: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. His biography of Thurgood Marshall is entitled "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary." Thanks so much, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

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