Burke Marshall was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, serving from January 1961 through December 1964. Martin Luther King regularly called and wired Marshall for assistance. John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights leaders were on a first name basis with Marshall. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), woke Marshall at 1:00 A.M. to inform him of King’s arrest during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.
Marshall was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on 1 October 1922. He graduated from Yale University in 1943 and served in the army intelligence corps during World War II before returning to Yale for law school. After graduation he worked with Harris Wofford at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling, representing prominent clients in antitrust suits. Although he seemed an unqualified choice for the top civil rights position in the Department of Justice, Attorney General Robert Kennedy surmised that the job would be best handled by a competent professional with no past political statements on civil rights.
Once in office, Marshall carried the task of litigating voting rights cases and school desegregation in New Orleans. That summer Marshall was faced with the Freedom Rides, the major federal racial crisis of Kennedy’s term. Although the federal government didn’t act until the violence in Alabama was national news, Marshall advised Kennedy to authorize federal protection for the young riders. After the ordeal, Marshall concluded that they had given the Kennedy administration a much-needed impetus to enforce constitutional freedoms.
Voting rights were on the agenda at an amicable April 1962 meeting between Marshall, Attorney General Kennedy, King, and other movement leaders. Afterward Walker thanked Marshall for his “invaluable assistance in removing and confronting many of the problems we face in our work in voter registration” (Walker, 11 April 1962).
Soon thereafter, King was jailed in Albany, Georgia, as part of SCLC’s participation in the Albany Movement. Marshall telephoned King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, telling her that he would do whatever he could to obtain King’s release. King, however, did not want to be released, as he wished to remain in solidarity with jailed local activists. Eleven days later, after being released, King debated for two hours on the phone with Marshall about whether to obey a federal court injunction against civil rights protests in Albany. In the end, he agreed not to march; however, an impromptu march went ahead without him.
Although King’s efforts were sometimes frustrated by Marshall’s noncommittal responses to his wires urging investigations into potential civil rights violations that did not clearly fall under federal jurisdiction, nearly every decision the federal government made to become involved in a civil rights claim during his tenure went through Marshall. Occasionally, where there was no immediate legal remedy for an unresolved racial dispute, Marshall personally negotiated between King and the white community. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote that Marshall “did an invaluable job of opening channels of communication between our leadership and the top people in the economic power structure” during the Birmingham negotiations (King, 103).
Marshall also had the dubious task of conveying to King the allegations by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover that King was being influenced by two alleged Communists, Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison. Although King was slow to act, after further urgings by Attorney General Kennedy and President Kennedy, he cut all contact with O’Dell and agreed to only communicate with Levison through intermediaries.
Marshall was critical to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the Act was signed King wrote to Marshall, thanking him for his “able leadership” in securing its passage through Congress (King, 24 June 1964). In his December 1964 letter of resignation, Marshall wrote that he believed the passage of the Civil Rights Act meant that the task of his division was “now a straightforward matter of litigation” to ensure compliance with the law (White House, 18 December 1964). Accepting his resignation, Johnson told Marshall, “During the past four years, the Nation has at long last come to grips with the domestic problem that has been the most difficult and complicated during our entire existence. You have played an extraordinary role in this significant area of human progress … In 33 years service with the Federal government I have never known any person who rendered a better quality of public service” (White House, 18 December 1964).
After resigning, Marshall continued to assist Johnson with civil rights issues. He served as Johnson’s personal envoy during the Selma to Montgomery March, walking with Wofford as the march set out from Selma. Marshall returned to the firm of Covington & Burling and then became general counsel at IBM. In 1970 he was named deputy dean at Yale Law School. From 1966 to 1986, Marshall served as chairman of the board of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization committed to making the justice system fair and humane. Marshall died in 2003 at the age of 80.
Arsenault, Freedom Riders, 2006.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Garrow, Protest at Selma, 1978.
King to Marshall, 24 June 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
Cabell Phillips, “Kennedy Requests Report on Dr. King,” New York Times, 12 July 1962.
Jack Raymond, “President Phones Justice Aide on Negroes’ Jailing in Alabama,” New York Times, 14 April 1963.
Claude Sitton, “Birmingham Pact Sets Timetable for Integration,” New York Times, 11 May 1963.
Walker to Marshall, 11 April 1962, SCLCR-GAMK.
White House, Press release, Exchange of letters between Lyndon B. Johnson and Burke Marshall, Assistant Attorney General, 18 December 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, 1980.