Letters from Thurgood: Segregation is Un-American, too

Kenneth J. Cooper | 2/15/2011, 10:53 p.m.
This 1954 photo shows lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Pictured (from l to...
This 1954 photo shows lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Pictured (from l to r) are Louis L. Redding, Robert L. Carter, Oliver W. Hill, Thurgood Marshall and Spottswood W. Robinson III. AP /Courtesy of the NAACP

As the Cold War with the former Soviet Union unfolded, Congressional investigators hunted for Communists in the American film industry, a search best exemplified by the “Hollywood Ten” case.

A federal grand jury indicted 10 writers, producers and directors in 1947 for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether they were members of the Communist Party. They were convicted and imprisoned for as long as a year.

Thurgood Marshall, the first Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), Inc., had a different idea about what kind of “subversive” activities the committee and its predecessor were actually trying to stamp out in investigating Hollywood.

Over the objections of the NAACP-LDF board, Marshall filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the convicted men’s appeal, arguing “the writers involved were those among the writers in Hollywood who had been most friendly to Negroes.”

The words appear in his original letter to Walter White, the NAACP’s secretary, and is reprinted in a new collection of Marshall’s correspondence, “Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall,” edited by Michael G. Long.

At the time of Marshall’s letter, LDF was still a part of the NAACP, making White at least nominally his boss. LDF became a separate entity in 1957.

“Of course, there are others in Hollywood, like some actresses, such as Bette Davis, and some producers, such as Walter Wagner, who claim to be friends of the Negro, or something of that sort, but I have yet to see anything that any of them have done for Negroes, and I have yet to see where any of them have made any contributions to the cause, even for the purpose of getting tax exemptions,” Marshall wrote in the Dec. 20, 1948 letter. “On the other hand, the writers in this case have taken the position in their actual work in Hollywood in writing scripts or giving the Negro as fair a break as they could possibly do.”

White and the LDF board feared that defending the suspected Communists would taint the civil rights organization with red, reducing public support and fundraising. It was a sensitive issue at the time, in part because Communists did infiltrate some local branches of the NAACP. Marshall vigorously opposed those stealth efforts because, in his view, Communists were trying to use black Americans to advance a cause different from their own.

But, Marshall believed black interests were at stake in the Hollywood Ten case and cited independent evidence to back his stance.

“It is not unworthy of notice that as long as Hollywood was producing the regular run-of-the-mill of anti-Semitic, anti-Negro pictures, led by the “Birth of the Nation,” the Un-American Activities Committee was not interested in investigating ‘communism in Hollywood,” Marshall wrote. “It should also be noted that the greatest impetus to the investigation of communism in Hollywood came shortly after pictures such as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and the few pictures in which the Negro was given any semblance of decency. Perhaps there is no connection in fact, but there is an undisputed connection in timing.