Friday, August 18, 2017

Louis Marshall: Wilderness Conservationist; Seeker of Social Justice

Louis Marshall Wilderness preservationist Louis Marshall would have not only commented about the extremism, murder and related tragic loss of life in Charlottesville, VA. He would have been outspoken against the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi followers that caused it. Further, he would have responded vigorously and explicitly against President Trump’s persistent equivocation about who caused the violence and loss of life. To the lawyer and civil rights advocate Louis Marshall, love of justice and love of nature bubbled up from the same headwaters.

We continue to live in a time of specialists where our humanity is defined and constrained as lanes we live and practice within. The messages we receive daily are to stay in our separate lanes, interests and specialties. By dint of his and world history and by force of personality, Louis Marshall (1856-1929) would not stay in any lane. Nor did Martin Luther King. Nor do young people today. Nor should any of us.

Louis is, of course, Bob, Jim and George Marshall’s father, all men who did things in their own right to change the course of Adirondack history and national wilderness history. Collectively, their family’s legacy as defenders of wild nature in the Adirondacks and around the country continues in the present generations.

Wilderness conservationists such as Paul Schaefer – who knew Bob Marshall – schooled many about the conservation and wilderness achievements of Bob’s father Louis Marshall, who must have made a strong impression on Paul. Louis had become internationally famous during Paul’s early life, dying in 1929 when Paul had reached the age of 21. Among Louis’ many claims to fame in Paul’s eyes were his behind the scenes and active involvement in crafting and approval of the 1894 Forever Wild constitutional amendment during the constitutional convention in Albany (then Article VII, now Article XIV); his defense of that Article during the 1915 constitutional convention when it came under attack from “scientific forestry”; his founding of the State College of Forestry at Syracuse; his repeated communications with state officials to guard against forest fires, timber thievery and to stop attacks on the Forever Wild clause; and of course, his raising with his wife Florence of remarkable children who went on to found and direct the work of The Wilderness Society and, later through Jim Marshall, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and to author, as Bob did, so many important writings about the benefits of wilderness to human development, such as The People’s Forest.

All this I knew something about thanks to Paul Schaefer and others. What I didn’t know anything about at that time was that Louis Marshall, who grew up in Syracuse, built his summer home Knollwood on Lower Saranac Lake, and practiced law in New York City, was Jewish and that blood seeking social justice pumped through his veins, and his children’s (and now their children’s). Marshall scholars and biographers made me more aware how his great legal mind and love of the language consistently rose to the defense of the persecuted and immigrant rights whether that defense arose at the White House, in the Congress, or frequently at the U.S.

Supreme Court and at what he hoped would become an international court of justice. His physical decline in 1929 was literally a major global event described in the front pages of daily newspapers around the world. His funeral must have been something to behold.

Pace University School of Law Environmental Law Professor Nick Robinson fills in the Adirondack part of this story:

“Beginning in 1898, Louis and Florence Lowenstein Marshall clearly made the camp, ‘Knollwood’ on Lower Saranac Lake, a natural haven for their children, to grow amidst the liberating air of wild lands, eschewing the biases and tribulations still burdening human society in city and suburb. It was here that the Marshall boys read Verplanck Colvin’s survey reports and T. Morris Longstreth’s The Adirondacks. Following in Colvin’s footsteps, Bob and George took to the mountain tops. Yet also from Knollwood, the Marshall boys would have seen and heard their Father working with others…fighting to ensure that Article XIV’s ‘forever wild’ strictures, which he had helped to incorporate into the Constitution in 1894, would be observed and enforced. By his example, Louis Marshall taught that it was not enough to love and enjoy nature; one must act also to protect nature from human excess” (Louis Marshall – Champion of Civil Rights, Conservation and ‘Forever Wild,’ a lecture by Nicholas A. Robinson, February 15, 2007 at the Center for the Forest Preserve in Niskayuna, NY).

Marshall argued persuasively for religious freedom, for immigrants, for Jews in European ghettos, for black Americans, for Native Americans. All were Americans in Louis Marshall’s eyes; all were human beings who deserved to celebrate their religion, their culture, and their individual rights as proud citizens of the country and members of the human race all at the same time. His big tent decried separatism and niche causes among his co-religionists. But when it came to attacks on minorities and religion,

“Marshall’s attitude was one of uncompromising resistance to these un-American practices… He refused, therefore, to tolerate even seemingly harmless slurs; and he took a firm stand upon the principle of absolute religious equality. He argued effectively and persistently that the United States was not a Christian government and that Jews deserved complete identity of treatment with other Americans.”

“By now Marshall understood, even more clearly than earlier, that Jewish rights would be safe only within a general context of freedom. The struggle for liberty could not be a partial one. It had to be waged on every front. To be in a position to protest against the violations of the rights of Jews in Rumania it was necessary to make sure the United States was not itself in other respects culpable…At home, he proclaimed he would fight the Klan as hard if it spared the Jews and was simply ‘against the Negroes or against any other part of our population.’ In the midst of the ‘Red Scare,’ he defended the rights of the Socialists and pacifists with whom he disagreed and some of whom were his bitter enemies. Consistently he resisted arbitrary censorship, even during the war. As a director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People he fought against racial segregation in housing and against the disenfranchisement of the white primary. The Indians, too, attracted his attention. He served voluntarily as counsel for the Pueblo nations, seeking to protect their rights in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. On behalf of the Japanese Americans he argued in 1923 against the constitutionality of the California laws that limited their rights to hold land. He felt as strongly about encroachments upon the rights of Catholics as he did about invasions of the rights of Jews” (from the Introduction by Oscar Handlin in Louis Marshall – Champion of Liberty, Edited by Charles Reznikoff, 1957, The Jewish Publication Society of America).

Marshall’s was “one of uncompromising resistance. He refused to tolerate even seemingly harmless slurs.” The “biases and tribulations” with which Marshall so vigorously confronted are still with us, whether at Charlottesville or in troubling racial “incidents” in the Adirondack Park. Credit goes to the Adirondack Diversity Council for shining a spotlight on these incidents. These slurs and attacks were un-American for Marshall, as they should be for any American president, and as they should be for us. As Nick Robinson wrote in 2007: “Surely Louis Marshall must have known (or at least hoped) that his own love of nature and love of justice and the rule of law would flow through to his children. It evidently did. Just as his example has inspired his children, so their examples inspire us.”

Photo: Louis Marshall.


David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




3 Responses

  1. Boreasfisher says:

    An excellent piece with much to contemplate regarding the interrelations of environmentalism and human rights. Thanks Dave Gibson for airing this important history.

  2. Susan Zack Lewis says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes!!!
    Louis Marshall left more than a legacy of social and environmental justice, He passed along an intense desire to stand up for civil rights right through to his grandchildren. The biography by M.M. Silver ( published in 2013 by Syracuse University Press) is a family treasure. Reading that book gave me a new perspective on life, liberty and our obligations to preserve such in this country. We see those beautiful traits in our Daughter-in-law and Marshall’s great granddaughter, Margaret Ambrose Schultz and her children. (Margaret is married to our son, B. Z. Lewis.

  3. Chiz Schultz says:

    Thank you for such a comprehensive and powerful tribute.

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