I was familiar with the Columbia, Tennessee race riot of 1946 because of its importance in the Black freedom struggle developing immediately after World War II. What I did not know is that it nearly cost Thurgood Marshall his life after the NAACP sent him to Columbia to defend the innocent.
When the trial ended, Marshall and the other attorneys knew it was not safe for them to remain in Columbia and decided to drive to Nashville. Shortly after leaving Columbia, they realized they were being followed by several cars, including a police car. They were pulled over by the police. Marshall was arrested for being drunk — even though he had had nothing to drink — handcuffed and put in one of the cars.
Raymond, Looby and Weaver were told Marshall was being taken back to Columbia and ordered to continue to Nashville. Looby saw that the police car and the other cars were not returning to Columbia. He followed them as they turned down a dirt road.
“They’re taking him into the woods,” Raymond told the others. “They’re going to lynch Thurgood Marshall.”
Marshall saw a menacing group of White men waiting at the end of the road. But upon seeing Marshall’s friends, the police knew that they could not continue with their plans. Marshall was driven back to Columbia to face charges of being drunk.
An elderly judge demanded that Marshall breathe into his face. Marshall obliged. The judge then turned toward the police officer and snapped: “This man hasn’t had a drink in 24 hours. What the hell are you talking about?”
Marshall was free to leave but worried about what would happen to him once he got back on the road. Local Black residents escorted Marshall and the others out of town, hiding them in different cars.
The experience made an impression with Marshall, who later argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and went on to become the country’s first African American Supreme Court justice. “He had a newly found fear of white mobs and violent policemen,” his biographer Juan Williams wrote.
It is impossible to overstate the level of bravery it took to stand up to white supremacy in the South during most of its history.