Sitting in those smoke-filled back rooms, he did business with lots of people whose identities would stun a modern audience. Decades later, he still remembered many of the infamous segregationists of the age with respect, and even a kind of distant affection. People, he would say, are complicated.

I once asked him what he thought of John W. Davis, the prominent lawyer who argued the other side in one of the consolidated cases known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education. Davis, the 1924 Democratic presidential candidate, is the Davis for whom the prestigious Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell is named. He was also an old-school West Virginia gentleman — and a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist.

Naturally, I assumed that the Judge would heap hellfire and damnation upon Davis’s head.

I was mistaken.

“John W. Davis?” Marshall said with a smile. “A good man. A great man, who just happened to believe in that segregation.”

Marshall wasn’t being facetious. He was making a point, one he made over and over. To the Judge, those who disagreed with him on the most important moral issue of the 20th century in America did not thereby lose their humanity.

How is that possible? Because he was able to reach across that deep moral divide and find commonalities with those on the other side. Only rarely did he see his opponents as evil; most were simply misguided. People, he knew, can be complicated.

Consider Davis. He believed passionately in the cause of “states’ rights” and had an ardent faith in a Constitution interpreted according to the original understanding. But his politics didn’t always lean toward the right. He denounced the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when the group was powerful in the Democratic Party. He had represented West Virginia coal miners who were prosecuted for little more than protesting in violation of a court order. Right around the time of the Brown decision, during the most oppressive years of the McCarthy era, Davis worked with the estimable Lloyd Garrison to fight the order stripping the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, of his security clearance, because of supposed Communist sympathies.

Complicated indeed.

This is an excerpt from an absolutely fantastic set of reminiscences of the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall by Yale Law professor Stephen Carter.

Another teaser to get you interested is Marshall’s story of how a Southern governor who believed in segregation got a hospital to start hiring black nurses. The governor told Marshall over poker, “OK, Thurgood. I’ll fix it. You won’t like the way I fix it, but I’ll fix it.”

The article is Stephen L. Carter, “What Thurgood Marshall Taught Me,” New York Times Magazine, July 14, 2021.

I didn’t know much about Marshall before reading this, but I came away admiring him. I’ve always liked people who follow their principles while working within the system.

HT2 Josh Blackman.