Braille Monitor                                                 November 2010

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Jacobus tenBroek and Thurgood Marshall: Two Giants in American Civil Rights

by the Staff of the Jacobus tenBroek Library

Jacobus tenBroek at his BraillewriterFrom the Editor: For some time now the staff of the Jacobus tenBroek Library has been writing reviews of books in our collection. I asked Director Morman if he would alternate book reviews with important letters found in the archives of Dr. tenBroek’s papers, and he enthusiastically agreed. Here is the first installment in what I hope will become a popular column for Monitor readers.

All Federationists know that Jacobus tenBroek was the founder and first president of the NFB, but many are unaware that he was also a towering figure in the field of constitutional law. In fact, tenBroek’s scholarship helped establish the legal underpinnings of the civil rights movement by demonstrating the applicability of the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment to matters of racial discrimination and segregation. Though it is now fundamental to American civil rights law, previous to tenBroek’s groundbreaking work the equal protection clause was often regarded as “the last resort of constitutional lawyers.”

In his 1949 California Law Review article, “The Equal Protection of the Law” (coauthored by Joseph Tussman), and in his 1951 book, The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment, Jacobus tenBroek provided lawyers and judges the tools needed to determine when a law improperly discriminates by excluding or including a class of people. A letter in the Jacobus tenBroek papers illustrates this important service.

Thurgood MarshallIn August 1953 Thurgood Marshall, then the director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, wrote to Dr. tenBroek, “As you know, we are trying to get together as much material as possible for our rearguments of the school segregation cases in the Supreme Court this fall. We have taken full advantage of your book, Anti-Slavery [sic] Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment, and many of our research people have been using it.

Marshall’s letter went on to request a meeting with Dr. tenBroek to discuss some of the ideas and conclusions the NAACP lawyers were developing. This letter may be viewed by visitors to the Jacobus tenBroek Library in the NFB Jernigan Institute, where it is archived as part of the tenBroek papers collection.

The meeting between Thurgood Marshall and Jacobus tenBroek never took place, but on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared that segregation by race in the public schools was unconstitutional. Specifically, in Brown v. Board of Education, the high court held that the separate but equal doctrine failed to meet the requirements of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. TenBroek’s scholarship had led to a new era in race relations in the United States.

In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, the first black person to serve in that position. Marshall died in 1993 at age eighty-four, two years after retiring. Jacobus tenBroek died at age fifty-six in 1968. In a relatively short life tenBroek achieved a huge amount for the blind, all disabled people, and indeed all Americans.


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