Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Keith Burris


Defenders of the faith

  • Thurgood-Marshall-The-Movie

    Thurgood Marshall stands near the Supreme Court in 1958.


  • Thompson-Watergate

    Sen. Sam Ervin (D., N.C.), chairman of the Watergate Investigating Committee, center, listens to counsels and the vice chairman of the committee during the first day of public hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 18, 1973.



Way back in 1985, as a young editorial writer, I covered the funeral of Sam Ervin, the great southern Senator whose career was bookended by two things — helping to engineer the censure of Joseph McCarthy by the U.S. Senate and chairing the select Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-ups.

VIDEO: Defenders of the faith

I remember vividly the trek from Winston-Salem to Morganton for a very simple Presbyterian funeral and the miles of cars making the pilgrimage through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains; the throngs of people who could not fit into the small church, listening on a loud speaker in a multi-purpose room or outdoors; the same throngs milling about afterward as if at a county fair, the Rev. Billy Graham, unaccompanied and unaccosted, among them. Reverend Graham did not preach that day. “Mr. Sam’s” pastor did.

Sam Ervin labored in obscurity for most of his years in the Senate, and he liked it that way. He didn’t make the scene on the cocktail circuit in Washington. He didn’t do the Sunday chat shows. He harbored no ambition to be the president. (We still had senators like that then.)

But when the Senate Watergate hearings thrust him into the limelight, he was perfectly comfortable. He put on a seminar on the law, on rhetoric, occasionally on Shakespeare, and on “the humor of a country lawyer.” He’d been a judge, you see. And Sam Ervin had really only two great loves beyond his family: the Constitution and the rule of law. Not his career or the Senate or the Democratic Party or even North Carolina, all of which he cared about with varying degrees of passion, but the Constitution and the law.

I still have, on a bulletin board, a line drawing and a quote taken from the Raleigh News and Observer. It is of Sam Ervin and the quote is: “The Constitution should be taken like mountain whiskey — undiluted and untaxed.”

I thought of Ervin last weekend when I saw the film Marshall, nominally about Thurgood Marshall. The film is really a courtroom drama about a celebrated rape case in Connecticut in 1941, in which Marshall successfully defended a black man falsely accused. It’s a good flick, and it highlights a Thurgood Marshall most of us never knew, or even knew about. We recall an old man in the robes of a Supreme Court justice. But Marshall was once a swashbuckling young lawyer, equally skilled at criminal work and constitutional law. Before he went to the high Court he was often before it — winning an astounding 29 of 32 cases. Marshall was just a brilliant, brilliant lawyer. It was Marshall who argued Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed the country forever and for good.

If Thurgood Marshall had never made it to the Court, he would have been one of the true giants of American history. But he really is one of the most underrated ones. For what is very seldom spelled out in the historical record, and what is only hinted at in the movie, is that this man kick-started the modern civil rights movement and essentially did it alone. He laid the groundwork for Martin Luther King and the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s

Virtually from the time of his graduation from law school in 1933 until his elevation to the federal bench in 1961, Marshall traveled the country for the NAACP defending African-Americans falsely accused. He traveled alone — no staff, no posse, no bodyguard.

Marshall went into the jails and courtrooms of the deep south, where no black lawyer had ever gone. Many of his clients faced life imprisonment or the death penalty. And Marshall himself was constantly in grave physical danger. He barely avoided lynching on at least one occasion. And he often had to switch accommodations multiple times during a stay. He appeared not only in defense of individual human beings, but the Constitution and the rule of law.

Thurgood Marshall was incredibly courageous — as brave as he was brilliant. But why am I telling you all this? Well, the movie is worth seeing, though there should be another one made, a really first-rate documentary, about Marshall’s whole life. And they should show it in the schools and churches. There should be a memorial to him in Washington as large as that to FDR or Jefferson. Marshall is that important.

For the greatest thing about Thurgood Marshall was that he believed the Constitution, which was written with a huge hole in it, could be the instrument of justice and liberation for the African-American: Let’s use this great blueprint of liberty to fulfill and expand liberty.

Now Marshall had his blind spots, and Ervin certainly did. That’s kind of the point. Human beings always fall short, but the Constitution, if it is the living document that Justice William Brennan thought it should be, can keep us free. For the law, as Marshall was convinced, can not only maintain order, but, sometimes, lift us up.

Read last week’s column from Keith Burris

One of my early heroes was Justice William O. Douglas, one of the great American champions of free speech. I still have his book, Points of Rebellion, in a place of pride in my study. I have since learned that Douglas was not a very nice man and that his jurisprudence could be terribly sloppy. And yet perhaps no justice has so eloquently defended the right of an American to think his own thoughts and be left alone to think those thoughts. Douglas is still worth reading for his passion for free speech and individuality. He is still stirring.

If you are ever in Washington, go watch the Supreme Court. You will be impressed. You will feel proud. At a time when the United States sometimes seems to be losing its center, it is worth remembering those who have held the center — the defenders of the American faith: freedom of conscience with liberty under the law.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at or 419-724-6266.

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