The Strangest Of Bedfellows

THE FIRST TENTATIVE STEPS IN THE MINUET BETWEEN Thurgood Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover were short and awkward. They came in 1956 when Dr. T.R.M. Howard gave a spit-and-fury speech to an NAACP meeting at the Sharp Street Methodist Church in Baltimore that harshly criticized the FBI. Bureau agents sent reports on the speech to Hoover, who wrote to Marshall, the NAACP's top lawyer--not NAACP head Roy Wilkins. It was an unusual choice. Almost from his first days at the NAACP, Marshall had been vocal about the FBI's failure to protect blacks in the South. Hoover wrote to Marshall that since Howard had used the NAACP as "a forum" to criticize the bureau, Hoover was taking "the liberty of writing you to set the record straight."

Given the sometimes barbed comments that had passed between them, Hoover was pleased when Marshall wrote back to agree that Howard had wrongly attacked the FBI with "misstatements of facts." And in a real stunner, Marshall said he knew the FBI had done a "thorough and complete job" in three recent cases where blacks were murdered in Mississippi.

Marshall's abrupt alliance with the FBI was as strategic as any of his courtroom maneuvers during his extraordinary career as a civil-rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice. Driving Marshall was his disdain for the communists, the radicals--even Martin Luther King Jr. King and his talk about nonviolence struck Marshall as childish. After Marshall was nearly lynched by Tennessee segregationists in 1946, the lawyer became convinced that nonviolent social protests would inevitably lead to "wholesale slaughter [of blacks] with no good achieved." Marshall was also concerned that the FBI might mix him up with the radicals and make him a target for its wiretaps and investigations. His alliance with Hoover was protection, Marshall hoped, against FBI interference with his ongoing legal work to defeat segregation. Hoover also had an agenda. Just as Marshall was worried about communists and subversives in the civil-rights movement, Hoover feared that the leftists might start a race war. He desperately wanted inside information from the NAACP--and Marshall was now the key.

The crafty Marshall took advantage of his newly cooperative relationship with Hoover to gain unprecedented access to the FBI. Marshall, in a conversation with Lou Nichols, the assistant director of the FBI, said he wanted to personally meet with Hoover to find out which civil-rights groups were communist fronts. In a memo, Nichols wrote that Marshall wanted information he could use to disparage communist sympathizers during his keynote speech to the NAACP's 1956 convention in San Francisco. "He stated that no one would know where he got the information and he wondered if I could be of any help to him . . . " Nichols noted after his conversation with Marshall. Marshall recalled the meeting--though not what Nichols shared with him--years later: "I remember one time I had a conversation with Lou Nichols about something very important," Marshall said, still refusing to divulge exactly what he talked about with Nichols. "In the FBI office, in some of these secure offices, I met him," Marshall said. "I sat down. He tossed a yellow pad over to me. I said, "You must be kidding. I know you guys don't allow copying.' He said, "These are instructions from the boss. Make your copies and use 'em.' And I did. But I still ain't gonna tell ya what it was. We were helping each other. It was something he wanted and there was something I wanted."

Marshall's notes on the FBI's yellow pad apparently focused on new tactics being used by communists to infiltrate the NAACP. Those communist tactics included creating fronts--labor organizations that then approached the NAACP and its branches for help with fighting discrimination. On the basis of the notes he took at FBI headquarters, Marshall sounded the alarm at the 1956 San Francisco convention: "Whatever the name, whatever the avowed purpose, we know them [communists] for what they are. . . . There is no place in this organization for communists or those who follow the communist line." In his mind, Marshall did not consider Hoover's decision to let him see FBI files to be evidence that Hoover was using him. Marshall viewed Hoover's decision as an act of generosity--the sharing of information between like minds. He thought he had manipulated Hoover--Hoover had not manipulated him. "We did it on our own," Marshall later insisted. "We got rid of them [communists]. They'd either go against religion or something like that, and that's how you could tell they were communists."

When Marshall was nominated to the federal bench, Hoover never offered any ammunition from his files to Marshall's many segregationist critics in the Senate. Similarly, when Marshall became solicitor general and then a nominee for the Supreme Court, Hoover's normal animosity toward civil-rights activists was neutralized. In fact, when Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the high court, Hoover even sent the future justice a note of congratulations. Marshall had caged a lion that could have derailed the civil-rights movement and destroyed his career.