Burke Marshall, 80; Key Strategist of Civil Rights Policy and Desegregation

Times Staff Writer

Burke Marshall, Robert F. Kennedy’s right-hand man in the Justice Department’s struggle to desegregate the South in the early 1960s, died Monday at his home in Newtown, Conn. He was 80 and suffered from myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disorder.

As the assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, Marshall helped manage pivotal events of the tumultuous era, from the federally supervised integration of public universities in Mississippi and Alabama to the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After leaving government, he became general counsel of IBM Corp., and later joined the faculty of the Yale Law School, his alma mater, where he taught for more than 30 years until his death.

Marshall was an unlikely crusader -- a rising partner at a Washington law firm, Covington & Burling, where he specialized in antitrust law -- when Kennedy tapped him for the civil rights post in 1961.


Quiet and unassuming, Marshall thought he had blown his job interview with the new attorney general.

But Kennedy hired him because his advisors had convinced him that Marshall was the brightest young lawyer in Washington. His lack of background on civil rights issues was considered a plus; the new administration feared that hiring a partisan might hinder its agenda.

“No man ever came into the U.S. government with looks more deceiving than Marshall,” Edwin O. Guthman, a former Los Angeles Times national editor and press aide to Kennedy at both the Justice Department and in the Senate, wrote in “We Band of Brothers,” a memoir of the Kennedy years. “Beyond a solemn, self-effacing manner, a slight build, spectacles and a creaky voice were a brilliant mind, a great amount of exceptionally penetrating logic and a terse, dry sense of humor.”

Marshall and Kennedy “became the closest of partners and friends, and were deeply trustful and respectful of each other,” Guthman said in an interview. “It was like it was made in heaven. Yet you never would have thought of it when they first met.”


To civil rights leaders, Marshall became a voice of reason in a developing storm.

John Lewis, a leader of the Freedom Riders that traveled the South starting in 1961 to test a Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination in public transportation, said Marshall quickly came to be known as someone to call if trouble arose.

Initially, “I don’t know if he knew much about the problem of race in the American South or civil rights, but he responded to the crisis. He listened, and he grew,” said Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. “I saw him during that period as a sympathetic referee in the struggle for civil rights.”

A skillful, low-key negotiator, he “personified resolution with respect to breaking the caste system of the South,” said John Doar, Marshall’s deputy, whose experiences were dramatized in the film “Mississippi Burning.”


“He had a marvelous ability to see way down the road and make the right call,” Doar added. “His challenge was to break the caste without getting a lot of people killed. And that wasn’t easy.”

For Justice Department lawyers, Marshall was a resonant sounding board.

Howard Glickstein, then an appellate specialist in the civil rights division, recalls Marshall drilling him on language in school desegregation briefs implementing the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Glickstein -- now dean of Touro Law Center in Huntington, N.Y. -- said Marshall convinced him to back off from a position that race should never be taken into account in school and other public accommodation cases. In a way, the advice was prescient; the idea that race should be a factor later became a fundamental tenet in the development of affirmative action.


“He prodded me about what I really meant, and what the implications were, and did we want that to be the government’s position,” Glickstein recalled.

In 1962, Marshall played a principal role as an advisor to James Meredith in his battle to become the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, “in the White House, at the president’s elbow,” said Louis Oberdorfer, a senior U.S. district judge in Washington and a former Kennedy Justice Department colleague.

In May 1963, he was sent to Birmingham, Ala., to craft a truce in the aftermath of attacks on civil rights protesters led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

On the plane back, Marshall and other department officials put together the first draft of a new civil rights law. The truce didn’t last, although the draft ultimately became the foundation of the landmark 1964 law.


Born in Plainfield, N.J., Marshall received undergraduate and law degrees from Yale.

From 1942 to 1946, he served in the Army as a Japanese linguist and cryptanalyst.

After a brief stint at IBM, he returned to Yale in 1970 as deputy dean and professor, and in 1986 was named Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law -- a chair named in honor of a Justice Department colleague who became attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In addition to his wife of 56 years, Violet, he is survived by three daughters and four grandchildren.