Swamp Diversity: 5 Things About Thurgood Marshall’s Relationship With The FBI

Swamp Diversity: 5 Things About Thurgood Marshall’s Relationship With The FBI

By Autumn Keiko

Swamp diversity? Talk about strange bedfellows. According to released FBI files, late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who spent his career fighting for civil rights, actually had a long-term secret relationship with the FBI. During the 1905s the FBI endlessly and relentlessly surveilled the leaders of the civil rights movement.

“Like many other civil rights leaders, Marshall often criticized the FBI publicly — especially in the 1940s, when he demanded greater FBI efforts to investigate lynchings and other crimes against African Americans. Some 1,300 pages of FBI documents released in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act reveal another side to the relationship,” Duke University reported.

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So was Marshall, the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court and a passionate advocate of civil rights, a snitch for the FBI? The answer is very complicated. 

Here are 5 things to know about Marshall’s relationship with the FBI.

Fighting Communists

After realizing he was a target of the FBI for his work for equality, Marshall started working with the agency, some historians speculate as a way to help civil rights leaders and the NAACP. He wanted to keep communists out of the movement and this is a point he and the FBI agreed on. 

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Protecting The NAACP?

“Marshall was on the FBI’s radar because of his membership in the NLG [National Lawyers Guild]. But he wondered if cooperating with the bureau might be a way to protect the NAACP from accusations of Communism. First, he got himself on the FBI’s radar by writing letters to the agency claiming that they weren’t doing enough to protect Black Southerners. He even met with the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, after exchanging a series of heated letters criticizing the FBI,” History.com reported.

“The NAACP’s interactions with the FBI were politically savvy,” wrote historian David J. Garrow.  

“Marshall may have been trying to protect the NAACP from the kind of attacks that the FBI directed at other groups by convincing Hoover that they were part of the fight against communism or he may have been trying to develop a relationship so that the NAACP could count on more help from the FBI when it ran into trouble in the South. But, for sure, Marshall was no simple informant,” Alexander Charns, a North Carolina attorney and author, told the Washington Post in 1996, as reported by Duke University.


However, the FBI didn’t play fair. Hoover was behind COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program that specifically targeted the civil rights movement through which FBI agents worked to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” various civil rights-focused organizations. (The NAACP wasn’t included.)

MLK Under Attack

Marshall’s inside work with the FBI didn’t help all civil rights leaders. Hoover targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., “hounding him, collecting salacious information they might use to eventually discredit him, and continuing their baseless investigations long after it was clear that he presented no threat,” History.com reported.

Connected With Hoover?

Still, Marshall got support from J. Edgar Hoover in his legal career. “He was convinced I was responsible for routing the commies out of the NAACP, and I did,” said Marshall in an interview.