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January 1951 was a busy time for Japan, or more specifically, a busy time for the office of the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Gen. Douglas MacArthur. General headquarters or GHQ, as it was commonly called, was getting ready to host the influential American diplomat John Foster Dulles, who was preparing the draft for the future Allied Treaty of Peace with Japan on behalf of the U.S. government, for his second trip to Japan.

But another important visitor had come just before then. Not yet as famous as Dulles at this point, he would nevertheless play a very important role in the 20th century, albeit in a different field. The visitor was Thurgood Marshall, one of the leading civil rights activists and lawyers in the United States and someone destined to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

He called his January 1951 trip to Japan “the most important mission thus far of my career.” Then 42 years old, he had already spent the previous two decades practicing law and arguing civil rights cases.

Born in 1908, he attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a railroad porter. Marshall learned to debate from his father, who took him to watch court cases and discuss what they had seen. His father did not specifically tell him to become a lawyer, but according to Marshall, he “turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”

Thurgood Marshall in 1967 | YOICHI R. OKAMOTO
Thurgood Marshall in 1967 | YOICHI R. OKAMOTO

Marshall graduated from Lincoln University, an all-Black university in Pennsylvania, in 1929, during which time he fought segregation at the town’s movie theater. He wanted to study law in his hometown of Baltimore but chose not to apply to the University of Maryland’s School of Law due to its segregation policies. Instead, he went to Howard University in Washington, graduating first in his class in 1933. His mother had to pawn her engagement and wedding rings to pay for his tuition.

The following year, he worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by arguing one its cases of school discrimination and joined its national staff full time in 1936. It was dangerous work, especially as he had to travel in the South, alone, but Marshall believed in the Constitution and in the difference between right and wrong. He also had confidence in his reasoning ability. Success built on success. He eventually won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

The case that brought him to Japan involved the personification of decades of legal unfairness and centuries of prejudices against Blacks, this time within the U.S. military. The incident was known as the Gilbert Case, in which Leon A. Gilbert, a World War II veteran of the Italian campaign and one of the few Black officers in the 24th Infantry Regiment, was charged with violating the 75th Article of War, specifically, “misbehaving himself before the enemy by refusing to advance with his command when ordered to do so.” He was tried at a court-martial, found guilty and sentenced to death before a firing squad.

All of this took place in Korea at the height of the fighting in July 1950, as U.S. and South Korean forces were being beaten back. It was even more ironic in that Gilbert’s all-Black unit had earned great acclaim just before that by dislodging the North Koreans from Bloody Ridge, a vital location on the highway to the strategic city of Yechon that had been retaken after 16 hours of fighting.

Gilbert’s wife, pregnant with their third child, appealed to the NAACP for help. Eventually, President Harry Truman, who had integrated the armed forces two years before, commuted the sentence to 20 years of hard labor.

Marshall discovered during his investigations in Japan (and Korea) that members of the court-martial were all white, and the main prosecution witnesses were allowed to appear in person while those for the defense could not. Other testimony was not introduced as well.

Numerous reports of false charges, unequal treatment, outright discrimination and other problems affecting Black soldiers abroad and domestically poured into the NAACP, things the organization had seen in civilian life too. For example, Marshall found that 16 times more Blacks were convicted of cowardice, the most serious charge on the battlefield, as opposed to their white comrades.

There were so many unfair, “stomach-turning” stories of injustice that the NAACP created a “Soldier Troubles” file and eventually decided to send Marshall there for an on-the-spot investigation. Fortunately, MacArthur was forthcoming. His inspector general and staff were available at all times, as were the judge advocate general and MacArthur himself. “I separated the gossip from the facts. I separated the hearsay from the facts. I separated the exaggerated statements from the facts, [as] I always do with a case, and any lawyer will do it.”

Marshall learned of the hatred many white officers had toward their Black troops, creating a lack of confidence between both groups, causing casualty rates to be unnecessarily high as neither wanted to help the other. Marshall reported his findings upon returning to the United States: “The problem of the American Negro in the Armed Forces will never be solved under a system of segregation and that a beginning toward the building of the proper fighting morale for American forces will never be made until segregation is completely abolished.”

Unfortunately, as we know, problems in race relations and systemic discrimination and injustices continue today, but Thurgood Marshall’s efforts at the time in Japan, 70 years ago, helped to give them voice and promote integration of the military.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (Routledge, 2001) and many other works about U.S.-Japan relations.

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