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Louis Marshall and American Civil Rights Jurisprudence, 1900-1929

  • Location: Midwest Jewish Studies Association, 20th Annual Conference, Chicago
  • Research area: Legal history

Oct 2008,

This paper recovers and analyzes the constitutional assumptions that Louis Marshall brought to his civil rights activism.  As the leading Jewish lawyer of his day—and as the American bar’s most prominent Supreme Court advocate—Marshall influenced the key legal ideas and arguments of the early modern civil rights movement.  At the same time, Marshall was caught up in and conflicted over the tangled loyalties and identity politics that divided leading American Jews participating in both the NAACP’s legal crusades and the extensive philanthropic work of the national Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.  Based on Marshall’s vast extant correspondence, this paper lays out the intellectual benchmarks of his constitutional thought and maps them against the perilous politics of early twentieth-century civil rights activism.  Most lay and historical opinion regards Marshall with unconditional admiration.  This paper begins to stake out a more balanced interpretation of Marshall, arguing that his unresolved inner conflict over how to accord American citizenship with Jewish identity spilled over into his constitutional jurisprudence.  The result was that few could follow where he trod; but rather than discard him as an authentic hero, American Jews have exalted him as a model lawyer.

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