In 1940, nearly three decades before he became the first African-American appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was asked to serve as a defense attorney in a Bridgeport, Conn., case that was drawing lurid headlines across the country. One publication dubbed it “the sex trial of the century.”
Marshall had become executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund the year before, and this was one of his more sensational cases: A Connecticut socialite, Eleanor Strubing, had accused her African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell, of raping her, binding and gagging her, tossing her in the back of a car and throwing her off a bridge into a reservoir.
Barred from speaking in court because he wasn’t a member of the Connecticut bar, Marshall relied on a Jewish attorney, Samuel Friedman, an insurance lawyer, who agreed to serve as co-counsel with Marshall and to speak for him in court.
The now little-known trial is the subject of a new film, “Marshall,” opening in Los Angeles theaters on Oct. 13. The film is not only a study of his early work, but also a snapshot of a golden era of race relations, when Blacks and Jews formed alliances to fight for civil rights and against the forces of racism and anti-Semitism.
“In that era, we were really locked at the arms and using our different gifts and our connections for the greater good,” said George Davis, executive director of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
The civil rights alliance was forged from the shared Black and Jewish history of slavery, as well as from the prejudice both groups endured at the time.
“The film is set on the eve of the American entry into World War II, a war fought over the idea of white supremacy,” Reginald Hudlin, the director of “Marshall,” wrote in an email. “Hitler is claiming that Aryans are ‘the master race.’ In the United States, the Bund and the Ku Klux Klan are having rallies together. While most Americans find Nazism repellent, the KKK is tolerated.”
The alliance Marshall formed with Friedman in the film preceded Marshall’s work with Jewish attorney Jack Greenberg, who worked with him on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, and succeeded him as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Black-Jewish relations were not always smooth. Ruptures emerged over such issues as affirmative action, quotas and housing policies. As Jews joined the white flight into the suburbs in the 1950s, and some continued to own buildings in the inner city, Black residents at times chafed against their Jewish landlords, said Michael Koskoff, a civil rights attorney who defended members of the Black Panthers in New Haven, Conn., in 1970, and who wrote the “Marshall” script with his screenwriter son, Jacob.
“For many African-Americans, the only interaction they had with the white community was the Jewish landlord. That became for many a negative stereotype, and may have, in part, inspired certain African-American leaders like Louis Farrakhan, who was overtly anti-Semitic.”
These days, the Black-Jewish relationship has continued along an inconsistent path, Davis said. As American Jews became more successful and assimilated, some young African- Americans “didn’t feel that there was any particular empathy from Jews on issues like Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Conditions changed, so Blacks and Jews weren’t in the same bucket in the same way.”
The identification of young African-Americans with the Palestinian struggle has further alienated Blacks from the Jewish community. “I think it’s really an age issue,” Davis said. “African-Americans who are educated and over 50 are very aware of the bond that African-Americans and Jews had. Younger people don’t know as much about it.”
“African-Americans who are educated and over 50 are very aware of the bond that African-Americans and Jews had. Younger people don’t know as much about it.” –– George Davis, executive director of the California African American Museum.
Perhaps films like “Marshall” can help remind people of those days, said Michael Koskoff, who learned about the Spell case a decade ago.
The Koskoffs were drawn to the Marshall story, in part, because of Friedman’s story. Friedman, who died 20 years ago in his 90s, was initially reluctant to take on the case, because the Holocaust was claiming lives in Europe, and the Jewish community was loathe to draw attention to itself in the United States. Further, Bridgeport was a predominantly white, Protestant community where Jews were already banned from certain neighborhoods, country clubs and segments of the legal profession. Friedman ultimately accepted the case in large part because as a persecuted minority, he empathized with the struggles of African-Americans.
“Non-Jewish attorneys refused the case, so someone had to step up, and the fact that Friedman was already an outsider contributed to that,” Koskoff said.
For his efforts in the 1940s, Friedman and his family received death threats. But he persevered, and after the Spell case he continued to work on behalf of civil rights.
Friedman’s daughter, Lauren Friedman, described in an interview an incident in which an African-American physician was barred from purchasing a home in a restricted neighborhood after the trial. Her father promptly found a straw buyer and arranged for the doctor to secure the home.
“He was very proud of that,” she said.
Koskoff said he also was fascinated by how much affinity Marshall had for the Jewish community. Marshall spoke a little Yiddish, and often told the story of his first job, working for a Jewish hat maker, Mortimer Schoen. One day, when Marshall was about 17 and delivering hats, he accidentally jostled a white man on a bus. The man told him to “Get out of my way, n—–,” according to Koskoff. Marshall promptly punched the man and was thrown in jail. Schoen bailed him out, and when he heard what had happened, he told Marshall that he had done the right thing.
As for the nature of Black-Jewish relations today, not everyone regards them as damaged. Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the NAACP, cited how he has partnered with organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on civil rights issues. Currently, a Jewish attorney is working with the NAACP to help people of African nationalities stay in this country under new immigration laws imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.
“In my mind,” he said, “the Jewish community has been a very close and important partner to the NAACP throughout the history of our organization, and including today.” n
“Marshall” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Oct. 13.