Marshall's Legacy Sparks Discussion on Civil Rights
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We are broadcasting from our bureau in New York where Tell Me More made its debut this week. We'd like to welcome our new listeners.
In a few minutes, we will speak with Judith Jamison, artistic director of the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She talks about the company's 50th anniversary and her remarkable career.
But first, another milestone. Thurgood Marshall was born 100 years ago today. He was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. But he was renowned long before that for his critical role in using the courts to fight state-sponsored racial discrimination, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, striking down segregation in the schools.
Justice Marshall's life story is playing out on Broadway in "Thurgood," starring Laurence Fishburne.
(Soundbite of Broadway production "Thurgood")
Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Justice Marshall Thurgood) When you go into a court room you cannot say, please Mr. Court, have mercy on me because I am a Negro.
MARTIN: The stage portrayal of Justice Marshall brings Justice Marshall's story alive to a new generation of theatergoers. But his legacy also lives in the work of a new generation of civil rights lawyers.
Here to talk about Marshall's impact on their own lives and careers and the future of civil rights, John Payton, the director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Luis Vera, general counsel for the League of United Latin-American Citizens, and Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of California at Davis.
Welcome to you all, gentlemen. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. JOHN PAYTON (Director-Counsel and President, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund): Thank you.
Mr. LUIS VERA (General Counsel, League of United Latin-American Citizens): Good morning.
Professor BILL HING (Law, University of California, Davis): Thank you, good morning.
MARTIN: John Payton, I want to start with you. You were recently appointed to lead this historic organization. I had an opportunity to interview you shortly after your appointment. I asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, and you said, a civil rights lawyer. Did Justice Marshall have something to do with that?
Mr. PAYTON: You know, he, I think, influenced all of us that are interested in issues of justice and equality and civil rights. He cast an enormous shadow over everything the three of us on here today do. And absolutely, he had an impact on me, because he's one of the transformative figures in our history. Not just as a lawyer but a transformative figure.
When he is born, our country is rigidly segregated by law. There are jobs black people can't have that are reserved for white people. Most black people couldn't vote. There are places you couldn't live. There are essentially no laws against discrimination. There are some laws that require it. And in the course of his career, he, in fact, changed the reality on the ground and in our law in ways that are just unbelievable. And it has affected all of us. I don't think there's any question about that.
MARTIN: Luis, what about you?
Mr. VERA: Well, that's absolutely correct. You know, in the Latino community, which I have the privilege to represent, you know, Thurgood Marshall, of course, is an icon. In his life and when you read his biographies, they talk about that the key to his work or his conviction of integration - and he thoroughly believed that only through integration would equal rights under the law actually take hold. And it was that belief and that integration that allows me as a Latino to help the Latino community in what I do with the League of United Latin-American Citizens. So we are very, very grateful to the lifework of Thurgood Marshall and the number of cases that he won that benefit all of us.
MARTIN: Bill Hing, the same question. Some would argue that Justice Marshall's work is less well known to the general public than perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. or even Malcolm X. Did you know about Thurgood Marshall growing up, and what impact do you think he had on you?
Professor HING: Absolutely, I knew about him growing up and I learned about him in high school, growing up in a small copper mining town in Arizona in the '50s and '60s. But when I entered law school and took constitutional law, I realized what a great impact he had on Asian Americans. For example, when it came to residential segregation, because historically, Asian Americans, for example, were herded into Chinatown and they couldn't buy property, land, houses in many parts of towns across the country.
And one of his - the famous cases that we studied in law school, Shelley versus Kraemer, that successfully challenged the racial covenants in property transactions which he managed to strike down, opened the path to individuals being able to purchase property no matter what skin color they had.
MARTIN: And this leads me to my next question. John, first to you. Clearly, the overt government-sponsored discrimination that Justice Marshall fought against as a lawyer and as a justice has been dismantled. Nobody can say, OK, you can't go to this school because you're black or because you're female or because of your ethnicity or language. But why do you think there's still a need for an organization like the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund? What are the civil rights issues that you consider are important and pressing today?
Mr. PAYTON: Let me just give you two quick data points. I don't think anyone will take issue with them and what comes of them. The first is, you just have to look at the state of our public schools in our inner cities to see just the enormity of the remaining challenges. About half of the kids in those schools drop out. Drop out. And when they drop out, they literally go into oblivion. They are not trained to do anything in our economy.
If you then look at the over one million people that are imprisoned in our country, half of whom are African-Americans and Latinos, you can just see how seriously our society has avoided these gigantic issues. And both of those data points are very related to race.
MARTIN: Well, explain how. Because I think some would argue that the issue of sort of poor educational quality might be an administrative issue. But is it a civil rights issue? The same issue around the high incarceration rate, too. If you could just tell us a little bit about why you think those are civil rights issues as opposed to other kinds of issues, like public policy or resource questions.
Mr. PAYTON: Sure, let me link the two. I don't think anyone would disagree with this statement. If we solved our dropout problem in our inner cities and the related problems in those schools, I think everyone believes there would be an almost direct affect of dramatically reducing the number of people in our prisons.
In short, you know, we've defaulted in our responsibility to educate our children and have instead imprisoned them. Now, are these civil rights issues? The reason we exist as an organization, and I think all three of us, the reason we do what we do is to in fact achieve justice and equality, the ability for our communities, our minority communities, to participate in our thriving economy, in our robust political system. And if we aren't educated, we can't do that.
If we are imprisoned, we are, in fact, essentially excommunicated from our political system. So of course, if there are defaults in our education system and if our criminal justice system has instead imprisoned huge numbers of people, those are fundamental and catastrophic civil rights crisis that we simply have to solve.
They're not administrative problems. We want kids to be educated, and for whatever reasons, we have to do what is necessary to see that they get the education that they simply have to have to thrive in our democracy and in our really robust economy.
MARTIN: Luis Vera, same question to you. Why are there so many civil rights organizations like yours? Particularly when you have Latinos attaining, you know, unprecedented political power, you know, governor of a state, presidential candidate, Bill Richardson. People would say, look at the success of Latinos in our society. Why is there still a need for civil rights organizations like yours?
Mr. VERA: Several things, to elaborate a little bit of what my colleague just said here. Why is there a civil rights issue in education? The League of United Latin-American Citizens, together with our sister organization, the Mexican-American League Defense and Education Fund, one of the things that we constantly have to fight against is the unequal funding in education.
In Texas, where I am at right now, we have, for example, in Bell County, San Antonio, Texas there's a total of 19 independent school districts. And all 19 are funded different. We have the poorest of the poorest school districts and the richest of the rich all in one country. And that exists throughout Texas. It exists in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, all through the South.
And so that's why it's a civil rights issue. Until we somehow come to where every child gets equal opportunity by having equal access to the best schools, the best books, the best technology and the best teachers, it will continue to be a civil rights issue. Now some of the things...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
Mr. VERA: I'm sorry. Some of the things that continue that are important to us also that Thurgood Marshall worked on was an area of voting rights. I mean, Justice Marshall, when he was with the NAACP, fought and successfully won cases which overturned, for example, white-only primaries. And people think, well, that was, you know, 40, 50 years ago. That doesn't exist anymore. Well, just three years ago, in LULAC versus Perry, we had to go back to the United States Supreme Court to tell them, wait a minute. The Texas legislature did it again. They discriminated against the Mexican-American community in South Texas. And sure enough, the Supreme Court, you know, agreed with us in a rule that the way they had redistricted the congressional districts was unconstitutional.
So these things continue to be civil rights issues and they will continue to be. But again, going back in celebration of Thurgood Marshall's birthday is that Justice Marshal showed us how to do that. He showed us how to fight within the system in order to successfully carry these cases as we did to the Supreme Court and continue his legacy. So I think that's why it's important.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with attorneys Luis Vera, John Payton and Bill Hing about the legacy of the late Thurgood Marshall and contemporary issues in civil rights. Professor Hing, there are those who argue that the most pressing issue in American life today is class, not race. What do you say about that?
Professor HING: Well, I think that obviously, class is a huge issue but it cuts across racially and has a bigger impact, I believe, on people of color. Let me give you an example of what I regard as one of the big civil rights issues of the day is immigration law and immigration enforcement with ICE raids that we see prevalent throughout the country. And that's very much the type issue that's equated with the types of issues that Thurgood Marshall railed against, both as an attorney and as a jurist.
On the bench he helped to set a tone for equating immigration rights with human rights so that today he would speak out very strongly, I'm positive, against the type of enforcement policies that we see along the border and in neighborhoods. And in terms of class, when John was talking earlier about prisons and what's happening in inner cities, many of us forget today that there are many low-income Asian Americans, particularly the Southeast Asian communities, that are affected by the same types of policies. The fastest growing prison population in California, for example, is amongst Southeast Asian youth who have grown up in inner cities as a result of failed refugee resettlement policies. So yes, class, but it cuts across racially, as well.
MARTIN: Professor Hing, I'm sorry, I just wanted to ask briefly, Professor Hing, are there other contemporary civil rights issues that perhaps we don't consider as such?
Professor HING: Well...
MARTIN: You mentioned immigration?
Professor HING: Well, I definitely think when it comes to issues of prisoners' rights that John alluded earlier, how the death penalty is enforced, I mean, he was on - Thurgood Marshall was on the Firman case and he never recognized subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court that held that we could reinstate the death penalty, and that's a huge issue with New Jersey having just outlawed it and California - I was privileged to be on the California Commission on the third Administration of Justices.
We just issued our report this Monday, and ten of us have called for the repeal of the death penalty because we know that it impacts mostly African-Americans and Latinos in California. And that's directly linked to how African-Americans, Latinos and poor Southeast Asians are treated in our society because the cards are stacked against them in the criminal justice system.
MARTIN: John Payton?
Mr. PAYTON: Look. Race and class are both really serious problems we have to deal with, but the intersection of race and class, which I think we all saw on TV, watching the pictures of people in the Lower Ninth Ward in Hurricane Katrina, the intersection of race and class is really quite different. And, you know, of course there are class issues, but what you saw in Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward was what happens when very poor people are also black people, African-Americans.
People were shocked to realize that, gee, they didn't have cars that they could get in and drive out of there. They were too poor to have cars. They were at the mercy of incompetent government agencies and they suffered because of it, and that's an intersection of race and class.
But there are class issues. But there are also very fundamental race issues that exacerbate all of the class issues and I think we have to recognize those and, you know, the point of that we still have continuing battles, you know, the court just decided - the Supreme Court decided this term, this last term, a voting case about photo IDs that's going to have an effect on minorities and poor people. They decided cases across the board about issues that will continue to plague us.
We have continuing issues about race, criminal justice issues where everyone knows what happens in the death penalty. Everyone knows what happens in sentencing where there are disparities and sentencing that effect people very dramatically and crack cocaine and - the crack cocaine disparity. So we have these battles we have to deal with, but we also have the fundamental issues of education, overpopulation in our prisons and how to make sure people thrive and participate in our democracy and in our economy. And we simply have to confront those.
MARTIN: We only have about a minute left, so Luis, I'm going to give you the last word. And it's a complicated question so I apologize for that, but just as Marshall - Thurgood Marshall as a lawyer and as a justice was confronting a system in which there were very few people that looked like him. It was a minority representing a minority group in which most of the people in power were of the white majority. That is not the case today. Does it complicate your efforts in the civil rights arena to advocate for issues when, in fact, the power structure might be quite diverse?
Mr. VERA: You are asking me is it more difficult now?
MARTIN: Yes. Yeah. Is it more difficult now? Is it a more difficult argument?
Mr. VERA: In some cases, yes, because the passion is not there the way it was during Thurgood Marshall's era. You know, during Thurgood Marshall's era, there was parallel civil rights movement going on with Dr. Martin Luther King and his movement, Malcolm X and his movement, so there was much more passion and you know, I guess the good thing about today is we get to remind young people that we all stand on the shoulders of great people like Thurgood Marshall.
And so yes, it's more difficult, I think, because of the passion, but at the same time it is not because in my case, Latinos have become more educated, have become more professional, become - you know, in the area of the law. And we are not as intimidated, I think, as we used to be.
MARTIN: OK. We are going to have to leave it there. Thank you. We are going to have to leave it there. I apologize. A complicated and rich topic and I hope we'll return to it in the future.
Luis Vera is the general counsel for the League of United Latin-American Citizens. He joined us from member station KTPR in San Antonio, Texas. John Payton is director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He joined us in our Washington studio. And Bill Hing is professor of law at the University of California, Davis. He joined us from his home in San Francisco. I thank you all so much for joining us.
Mr. VERA: Thank you.
Mr. PAYTON: Thank you.
Professor HING: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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