By Floyd Nelson, Jr.
It was a dangerous time in the United States, and it was even more dangerous to be Black and poor in the South. False imprisonment, beatings, shootings and lynchings were commonplace below the Mason Dixon Line in the 1930s and 1940s. Legal segregation — the erroneous separate-but-equal — was like a horrendous beast coiled throughout the fiber of the country, as well as the hearts and minds of the people.
But it was Kahlil Gibran, a poet born in the Middle East, who, in a sentence, authored a sliver of hope to those suffering ruthless racial injustice — and a warning to perpetrators: “Every dragon gives birth to a St. George who slays it.”
Enter: Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall, a modern-day St. George, along with his NAACP Legal Defense Fund team, “slew the dragon of segregation” that had been preying upon people of color in this country for centuries. “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP,” filmmaker Mick Caouette’s latest documentary, tells the story about Marshall and his battles that led to the desegregation of public schools.
Caouette came to St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on May 16 to preview his film as a part of the church’s 2012 Thurgood Marshall Celebration.
Caouette has managed to pull together hours of interviews, commentaries, facts and narratives about Supreme Court Justice Marshall, St. Augustine’s most well-known parishioner, and he’s managed to do it with little or no budget.
With commitments from PBS and others, Caouette told those in attendance what history books and law professors have known all too well: Thurgood Marshall’s herculean effort, resulting in the desegregation of public schools, will forever stand as a pivotal point in not just U.S. history, but world history.
Slated for release in February 2014, the documentary features rare footage and actual recordings of Marshall (many of us never heard him speak) recounting numerous humorous and dangerous stories about growing up, attending law school, and traveling throughout “an apartheid-like” segregated South.
“On many occasions he faced his own death and even his own lynching,” Caouette said. “He faced death constantly.”
As Caouette’s film project coalesces and he raises money to complete it, no doubt some will request to know more about Marshall’s years with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. After all, both are rich with important history and both took place before Johnson appointed Marshall in 1967 to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, making him the first African-American to serve on the highest court. And, of course, many will want the documentary to delve into Marshall’s years on the high court where he fought ongoing battles against what he called “a retrenching of the civil rights agenda.”
Alas, Marshall fans, this part of Marshall’s rich history will not be explored deeply. “This film will focus exclusively on Marshall’s crucial years before Brown,” Caouette said. “While there might be a minute or two on Brown and Little Rock, the entire film will take place from 1900 to 1950.”
If the preview is any indication, however, the documentary will not disappoint.
Viewers will have an opportunity to really grasp the importance of Marshall’s early work with the NAACP, which led to the 1954 landmark case Brown v. the Board of Education and overturned centuries of discrimination in education. More than that, viewers will see how Marshall’s successes, firmly rooted in those early years, set a solid foundation for the entire civil rights movement.
Furthermore, and many historians would agree, the multiplier effect set in motion by Marshall’s victories in the South continues to give life to today’s worldwide human rights movement.
One historian, Roger Wilkins, 80, who as a young attorney interned for Marshall at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, joined Caouette for the “Q & A” following the preview. Wilkins, also a journalist, educator and civil rights leader, is featured prominently in the documentary. After Wilkins was appointed Assistant Attorney General in the Johnson Administration — the highest ranking African-American public official up to that time — he became an editor for The Washington Post and The New York Times. At the Post, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with famed reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in 1972 for exposing the Watergate scandal.
“Segregation was crushing. It crushed black people’s belief that what they said and did and thought counted for something,” Wilkins said in an earlier interview. “I was 22 when that decision (Brown v. Board of Education) came down,” Wilkins said, “and it made me a better person.”
St. Augustine’s held the event in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Inc. the World Bank Group-International Monetary Fund Staff African American Association, and the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly.
Thelma Jones, member of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and a veteran board member of both the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and the World Bank Group-International Monetary Fund Staff African American Association, chaired the 2012 Thurgood Marshall Celebration. Jones was also the curator of the Thurgood Marshall Exhibit displayed during the event which was on-loan from the Thurgood Marshall Center.