The legal career of Thurgood Marshall — the man who became famous arguing cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and in 1967 became the first black Supreme Court justice — is full of cases that changed the American legal landscape.
But the case that inspired the new movie Marshall, arriving in theaters on Friday and starring Chadwick Boseman, isn’t one of those famous lawsuits. It’s not a grand civil-rights case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court, nor has the name of the man Marshall defended gone down in history. And yet it provides a window into a side of civil-rights history that is often overshadowed — but no less important.
The facts of the case, as described in Rawn James Jr.’s book Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation, were that a wealthy white Connecticut woman named Eleanor Strubing had accused her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell, of raping her while her husband was out of town for work. She claimed that over the course of one December 1940 night, he had raped her four times, written a ransom note, bound and gagged her, and then thrown her into a reservoir. Spell maintained that while it was true that he had initiated a sexual interaction, it had been consensual, and that they had stopped when she said she was worried about being found out.
Marshall and local attorney Samuel Friedman (played in the movie by Josh Gad) suggested that Strubing had lied about the rape in order to deal with her own guilt and fear about what she had done, and convinced the jury that her story was inconsistent with her own prior statements and the physical evidence. Spell was found not guilty.
The celebrated lawyer saw criminal cases like Joseph Spell’s as something of a break from the segregation cases that tended to occupy his time. They also were helpful for the NAACP as an organization, as lurid news coverage helped drum up membership. As Mark V. Tushnet explains in his book Making Civil Rights Law, headline-making criminal cases were one of the most effective branch recruitment tools at their disposal in the pre-war 1940s — especially because of the organization’s widely publicized stance on only taking such cases when …
Source:: Time – Entertainment