Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 27, 2003|Volume 31, Number 32|Four-Week Issue














Burke Marshall

Law professor Burke Marshall dies; played leading role in enactment of Civil Rights Act

Burke Marshall, a long-time Yale Law School professor who championed civil rights as an assistant attorney general in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died June 2 at his home in Newtown, Connecticut.

Professor Marshall, who was 80, died of a bone marrow disorder.

At Yale, where he taught for more than 30 years until his death, Mr. Marshall was the Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor Emeritus of Law and the George W. Crawford Professorial Lecturer in Law.

As head of the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division in the volatile racial climate of the early 1960s, Professor Marshall played a key role in civil rights victories that included the government's 1961 ban on segregation in interstate travel, the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination in public facilities.

He was equally known for his behind-the-scenes and non-confrontational approach in negotiating solutions to racially charged issues, and he helped avert violent racial clashes. In 1963, he helped calm the atmosphere in Birmingham, Alabama, when black and white students held sit-ins at segregated stores and restaurants, igniting the anger of white business owners and resulting in street demonstrations, mass arrests, and the use of fire hoses and police dogs to quell demonstrations. The Boston Globe reported in its obituary for the Yale scholar that Professor Marshall met with the students and asked them to make a list of their requests -- then, in a meeting with the businessmen, said, "The fire trucks are out, there are thousands of people in the streets. You have a choice. You can have this, or you let Negroes eat at the lunch counters."

Professor Marshall challenged the segregation of the era systematically, filing dozens of lawsuits to enforce existing federal laws against non-integrated Southern institutions. During work on the Civil Rights Act, he insisted that the bill be based on the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution (which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate trading and which had been used successfully in federal child labor and minimum wage laws) rather than on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment (which forbids a state to infringe on the rights of any of the nation's citizen), thereby averting a clash with Southern politicians on the issue of state rights. The U.S. Supreme Court found use of the interstate commerce clause constitutional.

In a message to members of the Yale Law School community, Dean Anthony T. Kronman said of Professor Marshall: "His goodness was so large that I half believed and fully wished he would live forever. Burke's generosity brought out the best in others. His love of justice helped change a nation. In Burke, the passion for equality became a rare and inspiring virtue and the legacy this modest man has left us is worth more than all the treasure in the world. How fortunate we were to be within his orbit."

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on Oct. 1, 1922, Mr. Marshall graduated from Yale College in 1943. He served in the U.S. Army as a Japanese linguist and cryptoanalyst from 1942 to 1946, then attended the Yale Law School, graduating in 1951. He joined the Washington, D.C. law firm of Covington and Burling and became a partner there in 1960. A year later, he was became the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. Professor Marshall didn't expect to get the job: following his interview with Robert F. Kennedy, he told his wife, Violet Person Marshall, that he "blew" the interview. Professor Marshall's interview with Kennedy was recounted in the 1971 book "Kennedy Justice," in which Victor S. Navasky wrote that neither Kennedy nor Professor Marshall said a word to each other for the first 10 minutes, and Kennedy was not immediately impressed. Nevertheless -- writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his 1978 book "Robert Kennedy and His Times" -- Kennedy hired Professor Marshall for his legal skill and insight, and he later developed great respect for Professor Marshall's "incorruptible character, dry humor and intense moral conviction."

Professor Marshall resigned from his government post in 1964. On Mr. Marshall's letter of resignation, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, "I have never known any person who rendered a better quality of public service."

After working for the Justice Department, Professor Marshall briefly rejoined Covington & Burling before becoming general counsel at I.B.M. In 1970, he was appointed deputy dean and professor at the Yale Law School, where he taught classes on political and civil rights and procedure. He was named the Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor in 1986.

Professor Marshall also served for 20 years as chair of the Vera Institute of Justice, which works with local communities on criminal justice issues.

In addition to his wife, Professor Marshall is survived by three daughters, Catie Marshall and Jane Marshall, both of Brooklyn, New York, and Josie Phillips of Plymouth, England; and by four grandchildren.


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