Sunday, February 2, 2014



Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Burke Marshall* was appointed to head the civil rights division of the United States Justice Department 53 years ago today, February 2, 1961, by President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Marshall, before his appointment by JFK, was a specialist in anti-trust cases with a respected Washington, D.C. law firm.

Burke Marshall
Deputy Attorney General
for civil rights
LBJ Library Photo

Mr. Marshall's official title was Assistant Attorney General for civil rights.

The final recommendation of Burke Marshall came to the President from his brother, the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy.

Robert Dallek, in his book "In Camelot's Court," quotes Bob Kennedy as saying...

"What I wanted was a tough lawyer who could look at things objectively and give advice--and handle things properly.

I didn't want...someone...who was...dealing from emotion and who wasn't going to give what was in the best interest of President Kennedy--what he was trying to accomplish for the country."

The first meeting of the 38 year old Washington lawyer with President Kennedy apparently did not go that well.

JFK said afterward...

"I have nothing in common with that man."

The civil rights movement, however, would bring commonality to President Kennedy and Burke Marshall.

In one of his first challenges, the deputy Attorney General for civil rights advised JFK to authorize federal protection for the freedom riders.

Mr. Marshall concentrated on results. 

He favored using the federal government's constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce which he was to use as a basis to write the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Burke Marshall resigned in December 1964.  President Lyndon B. Johnson said...

"I have never known any person who rendered a better quality of public service."

In an oral interview given at the LBJ Library on October 28, 1968, Mr. Marshall was asked about the early days in the Kennedy administration.

He said that he had not personally known either Jack or Bobby Kennedy before the appointment, but that he suspected his recommendation to them came from Byron White.

Mr. Marshall added that his interest in civil rights combined with the clarion call of JFK's inaugural address attracted him, along with many in his generation, to the Kennedy presidency.

Marshall recalls one of the first meetings where the Attorney General and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were present.  

He said that Bob Kennedy was "very impatient" and that he continually asked the question...

"Why hasn't this been done?"  

Those questions did not go over well with LBJ who headed the civil rights committee.

When asked about Mr. Johnson, Burke Marshall said that he was "very effective" on a personal level but that he was much less so in the public arena.

One of the less savory duties that Mr. Marshall was assigned was informing President Johnson that the FBI had discovered that Martin Luther King, Jr. was being influenced by communists Jack O'Dell and Stanley Levison.

In 1970, Burke Marshall returned to Yale Law School were he was deputy dean.  In 1986, he became a Nicholas Katzenbach professor.

*Burke Marshall (1922-2003) was born in Plainfield, N.J.  He earned his BA at Yale in 1943 and his LLD in 1951.  He served in the US army in WWII as a Japanese linquist and cryptoanalyst.

As deputy attorney general in the Kennedy Justice Department, Marshall played a critical role in the desegregation of the south.

Upon news of his death in 2003, Yale Law School dean, Anthony T. Kronman wrote...

"It is hard for me to accept Burke's death.  His goodness was so large that I half believed and fully wished he would live forever."


"Camelot's Court, Inside the Kennedy White House," by Robert Dallek, Harper Publishing Company, New York, 2013.

"Prof. Burke Marshall Dies at 80," June 2, 2003,

Transcript, Burke Marshall Oral History Interview I, 10/28/68, by T. H. Baker, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.