When he appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared that it was “[t]he right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.” To look at Marshall’s qualifications, you can see why Johnson would have such high praise: A pivotal character in the civil rights movement, Marshall made headlines as a tenacious lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1940s and ’50s before he became the first black Supreme Court justice. Marshall, coming to theaters this October, tells a story from these early days, during one of the lawyer’s most publicized cases: The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.
The case was argued in 1941, at the end of the Great Depression, when economic downturns and increased migration spurred racially motivated violence. The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell proved that these pressures had manifested even in the wealthiest areas of the North. Sent to Connecticut by the NAACP, Marshall defended a black chauffeur accused of sexual assault and attempted murder by his employer, Eleanor Strubing, a white, wealthy socialite. During the case’s time in court, tabloids depicted Strubing as sexually appealing—one reportedly published a photograph of her in a swimsuit lounging on the beach—while painting Spell as uncouth (one called him “a colored man with a bad hangover”). Meanwhile, families in wealthy Westchester County, New York, were rumored to have fired their black domestic servants in response to Strubing’s accusations. Though Connecticut v. Joseph Spell has long been overshadowed by other legal victories, Marshall is poised to bring this crucial moment of civil rights history back into the light.