Blogs > Cliopatria > Justin Driver: Review of Robert L. Carter's A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights

Mar 8, 2006 1:12 am

Justin Driver: Review of Robert L. Carter's A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights

hen Martin Luther King Jr. first garnered national attention as leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955, it did not take long for Thurgood Marshall to view him with disdain. Marshall had long since established himself as Mr. Civil Rights with numerous victories before the Supreme Court, and he regarded the young preacher as an upstart, unworthy of (and ill prepared for) the attention being lavished upon him. Beyond their nascent personal rivalry, moreover, Marshall loathed King's strategy for attacking segregation. Rather than encouraging blacks to boycott and to demonstrate, Marshall believed that racial progress would be best achieved by filing lawsuits that chipped away at the edifice of Jim Crow until only rubble remained. Whereas Marshall thought of himself as attaining full equality for blacks under the law, he thought of King as a grandstander exhorting blacks to break the law. The passage of time did little to revise Marshall's uncharitable assessment of King, though he largely avoided airing his opinion. In Marshall's interview for Columbia University's Oral History Project in 1977, he offered a decidedly mixed assessment of King's legacy: "I think he was great, as a leader. As an organizer, he wasn't worth diddly-squat. But very few leaders are.... You need a second guy to run the show."

Robert L. Carter was Marshall's own second guy, and Carter believes that these words apply with at least equal force to his old boss. Carter worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (commonly referred to as LDF) in the 1940s and 1950s, holding titles such as assistant special counsel and deputy counsel. In this age of rampant title inflation, these labels fail to capture the scope of Carter's role in re-shaping the nation's conception of race. Carter wrote many LDF briefs, formulated trial strategies, and argued a number of the organization's appellate cases. Put simply, every endeavor that LDF undertook during its most pivotal era bears Carter's imprint. When the organization litigated bus segregation in Montgomery, it was Carter rather than Marshall who, from the outset of the lawsuit, worked with local counsel to secure the legal victory that eliminated the need for boycotters. ...

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