February 10, 2021 at 2:47 pm

Moak Authors Chapter on Thurgood Marshall: The Legacy and Limits of Equality under the Law

Dr. Daniel Moak, standing outside with greenery

Dr. Daniel Moak

Dr. Daniel Moak authored a chapter on on Thurgood Marshall in a new edited volume from University of Chicago Press called African American Political Thought: A Collected History.

Moak is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and a member of the Center for Law, Justice & Culture at Ohio University. His chapter is titled “Thurgood Marshall: The Legacy and Limits of Equality under the Law.”

“My chapter focuses on Thurgood Marshall’s notion of equality and democracy throughout his career,” he says. “The historic nature of Thurgood Marshall’s legal victories and jurisprudence have often obscured a deeper exploration of his broader political vision. Although Marshall never authored an authoritative manuscript describing his political commitments, a close examination of his personal correspondences, legal strategies, popular publications, and judicial decisions reveals a commitment to a particular democratic vision that emphasized equality under the law and fair incorporation into the existing economic order as central to advancing black political interests.”

Although this vision was “radical” from the perspective of existing constitutional law at the time, Moak argues it also had important limitations. “For Marshall, the biggest problem facing black people was that they were not being allowed to participate equally in the existing society based off of the arbitrary characteristic of race. But there were other black political theorists who were arguing that the structure of existing society itself was unfair – and that it was a mistake to push for incorporation into a fundamentally unfair system. We can see the potential limits of Marshall’s approach when we look at the Brown v. Board and Brown II decisions. In the aftermath of the Brown v Board victory, southern states and school districts tried a number of tactics to delay implementation of the decision. One such tactic was to make the racist argument that because the average score of black students on standardized tests was lower than that of their white counterparts, integration threatened academic standards and should be delayed. Marshall and the NAACP sued these states in Brown II, seeking more immediate integration of schools.” Arguing before the Supreme Court, Marshall acknowledged that there might be some administrative problems that would arise, but he suggested his own resolution: ‘So what do we think is the solution? Simple. Put the dumb colored children in with the dumb white children, and put the smart colored children with the smart white children; that is no problem.’ This example reveals one of the key facets of Marshall egalitarian thinking; he had few qualms about supporting differential treatment if it was based on a factor that he considered nonarbitrary, like intellectual ability. What this meant is that Marshall, the champion of racial desegregation, believed that it was not inegalitarian to engage in educational segregation on the basis of ability.”

Marshall’s vision of democracy put him at odds with several of his contemporaries including Ralph Bunche, Oliver Cox, and Bayard Rustin. This group argued that mass-organizing and the transformation of the economic order were key to addressing the subordinate position of black people in the United States. These authors and activists argued that only a fundamental change in the economic and political system could lead to equality.

“In the chapter, I trace the contributions of Marshall to the debate over the requirements of equality, democracy, and black advancement within black political thought. Ultimately, I argue that Marshall’s pivotal role in helping to consolidate the Civil Rights Movement around his preferred vision led to sweeping advances in the political and legal rights of black Americans, but also helped sideline black voices pushing for a more economically egalitarian political program,” Moak says.

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