By Paul Friedman
ALEXANDRIA, VA – 80 years ago at the Queen Street Alexandria Library, five men held what would later be known in civil rights history as the first “sit-in” for desegregation in American history. They wanted library cards.
Paying homage to the legacy of that famous civil rights event, the movie Marshall (2017) set in 1940 and 41, will be shown on Friday, May 17, from 3- 6 p.m. at the Ellen Coolidge Burke Branch Library at 4701 Seminary Rd.
Since my great uncle Sam Friedman is a major character portrayed in the film, I’m honored to have been invited to say a few words about it beforehand and answer questions afterwards. For those who can’t make it, here’s the story:
The Friedman Part of the Story
In 1940, Thurgood Marshall was 32, brilliant, and a New York lawyer who wanted to ensure that black people would not continue to be railroaded through the judicial system when arrested. He also wanted to end legal segregation in schools. Thus, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
At about the same time, African American Joseph Spell, who was working for a wealthy white couple in Greenwich, Conn., was accused by the wife of rape and attempted murder. As a result, it was splashed across the New York newspapers and caught the attention of Thurgood.
My great uncle Sam Friedman, 38, who was an experienced, fearless, and respected lawyer, was asked to represent Spell by the local NAACP chapter.
Sam had a secure legal practice and was still single; he practiced in Bridgeport and not Greenwich. So whereas a local family man without a strong practice may have been wary, Sam was freer to act.
Soon after he accepted the case, Marshall visited with Sam. A black man and a white man had trouble meeting in public for lunch, even in Connecticut. Yet, as the lawyer for the Hotel Barnum, named after P.T. Barnum, he had leverage there even though staff rejected seating them at first.
Remarkably, although Barnum is famous for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, he served as a Republican State Delegate in 1865, where he spoke up for passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Then, as Mayor of Bridgeport in 1875, he helped create and later served as the first President of Bridgeport Hospital, where I was born.
Marshall wanted to ensure Spell was being well-represented. After consulting with Sam, he went on to investigate other cases where he was needed.
Sam’s success in defending Spell was a valuable step forward for civil rights. Sam went on to become a judge but antisemitism, like racism, didn’t end. Even with his stature in the community, he was never allowed to join a restricted golf club near his home.
Years later, my father, Arthur, was made a partner with Sam in the law firm Friedman and Friedman.
In 1968, my family visited Washington, DC so my father could be sworn into the Supreme Court Bar by Justice Marshall. I was just nine but appreciated the excitement of watching that and meeting him in the Court when he walked over to where we were seated. I later briefly worked for my father’s law firm when Sam was Of Counsel and near retirement.
In more recent years, Sam’s daughter, Lauren Friedman, decided to make a film about the Joseph Spell case. Its appeal to the producers was Marshall’s connection.
While the commercial need to highlight Marshall’s role resulted in the fictionalized version of the story seen in the 2017 movie, it still tells an important story about race in America just prior to WWII, the importance of the legal system in advancing civil rights, and the courage needed to challenge a world where prejudice and bigotry were infused in everyday life.
Paul Friedman is also a civil rights activist who resides in Alexandria.