‘It’s the honest to goodness truth’

Published:May 18, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

With the Brown v. Board and Plessy v. Ferguson anniversaries back to back this week, I thought it appropriate to highlight this interview that Thurgood Marshall gave Mike Wallace back in … well, I don’t know when exactly. But it’s clearly after he successfully argued Brown but before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Justice Marshall took a beating during the confirmation hearings last year of now-Justice Elena Kagan. But whatever your politics, I think we can agree he was a giant of his day, and in this moment, he seems both serious and human. When you hit play, brave those first few moments of static and interruption, and then enjoy the way Wallace wryly puffs his cigarette and reads inane commercial copy.

Money quote, as they say:

WALLACE: Do you feel any sympathy for, any understanding of the southerner, the white southerner who was forced suddenly to change not only his attitude but his whole way of life?

MARSHALL: I have as much sympathy as I could have for anybody. I recognize it is a tough problem; it’s a problem that at times would seem to the average southern white man as being insoluble. I recognize it, and I for one would do everything in my power, and so would the NAACP, to work it out in a way that would be satisfactory to both sides concerned. And I can’t be any more forthright than that because it’s the honest to goodness truth.

You look in Marshall’s face, and the man does not come off as an idealist. But these are not the words of someone who knows what’s in store. He seems to actually think that Bull Connor and the black man could just sit down and figure it all out. Maybe in some world they could, but sadly not in this one.