The Limits of the Law: Justice Thurgood Marshall in Oklahoma

by Hannibal B. Johnson


The words “law” and “justice” fit together like handmaidens.

Historically and strategically, African-Americans have been true believers in the marriage of these concepts. From abolition to civil rights, African-American liberation movements viewed changes in the law as the primary means by which to achieve our ultimate end, justice. Over time, we successfully challenged many of the laws that oppressed us. Whether our concerted push toward equality before the law has led to justice is, at best, an open question.

Is our continued faith in law as the chosen vehicle for social change and, ultimately, justice, misplaced? Stated differently, does the law, even when neutrally applied, lead inexorably to justice?

One of our great American heroes and a shining star in the legal pantheon, the late United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, pondered those questions. On June 29, 1991, on the occasion of his retirement from the Court, he noted:

“The legal system can force open doors, and sometimes, even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.

We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same.

Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide, tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side.”

Justice Marshall, a stalwart soldier in the battle for African-American equality before the law, came to realize that justice requires more than the law alone can afford. Justice demands both legislative and spiritual awakening.

In his early career, Thurgood Marshall, a crackerjack lawyer trained at Howard University Law School, led a frontal assault on segregation on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He worked the legal system from within, deftly challenging discriminatory practices on Constitutional and other grounds. Marshall had strong Oklahoma ties.

In 1941, the NAACP dispatched Marshall to Hugo, Oklahoma to defend W.D. Lyons, an African-American who stood accused of three counts of capital murder and arson. Upon his arrest, law enforcement officers viciously beat Lyons and forced him to handle the bones and teeth of the murder victims. Lyons confessed. Marshall sought to suppress the confession on account of coercion.

A state convict on temporary and unsupervised prison release had previously confessed to the December 31, 1939, crimes for which Lyons stood accused. Marshall, convinced of Lyons’ innocence, concluded that Oklahoma Governor Leon C. Phillips squelched the convict’s confession for political reasons, and then sought and found a scapegoat, Lyons.

The heinous nature of the case, coupled with the curiosity of, in Marshall’s own description of comments he overheard, “a nigger lawyer from New York,” made the case inescapably attractive. Townsfolk by the hundreds filled the courthouse. Teachers even brought their students in to see the spectacle that the judge called a “gala day.”

The judge allowed Lyons’ confession into evidence, and the jury convicted him. Lyons, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death, as sought by the prosecution. Given the circumstances, Marshall viewed the sparing of Lyons’ life as a partial victory. He also saw the appeal of the decision as a viable vehicle through which to build the NAACP’s legal defense fund. The United States Supreme Court, in a 1944 decision, Lyons v. Oklahoma, upheld Lyons’ conviction.

Years later, Marshall returned to Oklahoma to represent a young woman from Chickasha, Ada Lois Sipuel, in her quest to integrate the University of Oklahoma College of Law. In cases like Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (1948) and, later, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Marshall tore down America’s wall of de jure segregation, brick by brick. Later, as Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Solicitor General, and United States Supreme Court Justice, Marshall continued to give voice to the voiceless as an unwavering advocate of legal egalitarianism.

Thurgood Marshall devoted his life to equality under the law, ostensibly for African-Americans, but, in reality, for all Americans. He recognized that changing the legal system was necessary, but not sufficient, to make America a land of “liberty and justice for all.” Experimentally, he tested the limits of the law. Beyond those outskirts lies, broadly speaking, a spiritual realm.

Today, African-Americans are over-represented in prisons, on welfare and among the unemployed and uninsured. The educational achievement gap shows no sign of abating. On virtually all socioeconomic indicia of well-being, African Americans lag behind. Where is the justice—fairness, equity, moral rightness—in that?

While every American shares responsibility for this perilous state, individuals acting alone cannot rectify this ugly reality. The true test of a society is how it treats the least of those in its midst. It is about the interconnectedness and shared fate of which Justice Marshall spoke. If we are to extricate ourselves from this morass, we will do it with the support of forward-thinking people of all persuasions who understand the folly of doing nothing. We will have to do more than make changes to our laws. We will have to change hearts and minds, too.

What might you do to better incorporate diversity and inclusion into your own life? How might you help build a more inclusive community where you are? A few simple steps follow:

•Expand your mind. Learn about your own diversity dimensions (e.g., your racial, ethnic, and cultural heritage) as well as that of others. Broaden your horizons by discovering your own history and that of the world around you.

•Know yourself. Get in touch with your feelings, preconceptions, and stereotypes. Know your biases and work to eliminate them.

•Reach out. Step outside your comfort zone. Reach out to “the other”—people from different backgrounds.

•Listen. Pay attention to what others say about their experiences around diversity and inclusion issues. Incorporate the lessons you learn into your life.

•Engage. Get involved with clubs and organizations, initiatives and issues that embrace and foster diversity and inclusion.

We do honor to the memory and legacy of Justice Marshall when we run with the baton he handed off to us. We have to stride beyond mere equality under the law. If we want “justice,” then we must be willing to round the track as long as necessary to make the human connections that will ultimately win the race.