One Man vs. Racial Injustice : U. S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall has spent a lifetime fighting the whiteEstablishment to secure equal rights for black people.
A tall, thick, aging black man steps out of a limousine and trudges toward the hotel ballroom where he is scheduled to give one of his rare speeches. Black bellhops and maids and doormen freeze in place, pointing. Black waiters and waitresses begin streaming out of the kitchen for a glimpse of him. Elderly black people, some with tears in their eyes, stand on tiptoes to see better and wave.
A white man, awed by the emotional reaction, taps a black man on the arm: “What’s goin’ on? Who is that guy?”
“That’s Thurgood Marshall.”
The white man seems confused: “He’s one of those Supreme Court judges, right?”
To many, if not most, white Americans, Thurgood Marshall is not a lot more than “one of those Supreme Court judges.” They don’t doubt that he is an important and honored man in American life. But he is only one of hundreds of equally important, powerful people in the country.
Yet if whites could see Thurgood Marshall more clearly, they might see the most important black man of this century--a man who rose higher than any black person before him and who has had more effect on black lives than any other person, black or white.
Twenty-two years ago, even before Marshall broke the 178-year color barrier on the Supreme Court, Newsweek magazine wrote: “In three decades, he has probably done as much to transform the life of his people as any Negro alive today, including Nobel laureate Martin Luther King.”
The accolade was deserved. Marshall built his reputation slowly, in backwater Southern towns, overwhelmed but not overmatched by a twisted white justice wrought by judges and sheriffs who had few second thoughts about beating in black heads.
Often the only hope among blacks in these small communities was expressed in a quiet, angry threat, whispered like code: Thurgood is coming.
“When I think of great American lawyers, I think of Thurgood Marshall, Abe Lincoln and Daniel Webster,” says Thomas G. Krattenmaker, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center. “In this century, only Earl Warren approaches Marshall. He is certainly the most important lawyer of the 20th Century.”
Marshall is the only black leader in U.S. history who can argue that he defeated segregation where it counts--in court. Devising a legal strategy based on the Constitution, he forced rights to be extended equally to even the poorest, most disadvantaged citizens. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have won his first victory, the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, if Marshall’s NAACP legal team had not first won a Supreme Court ruling outlawing bus segregation. And it was Marshall who argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, ending segregation in public schools.
“He is almost an exact contemporary of mine,” says Erwin Griswold, a former dean of the Harvard Law School and former solicitor general who is regarded as an expert on the Supreme Court. “I have watched him for all these years. First, he was an extremely resourceful and energetic advocate in the late 1930s and 1940s, trying difficult cases all over the South with great skill and often much courage. He changed America. And then as a judge on the court of appeals and as solicitor general he upheld the best standards of the legal profession. And now he has been on the Supreme Court for 22 years and has had a distinguished record . . . and ranks among the strongest members of the Supreme Court in this century.”
Marshall has argued more cases before the court--32--than any justice now sitting. He won 29 of them. Marshall alone among the justices can say he has defended a man charged with murder.
In black America, Marshall has become a doubly potent symbol: the protector fighting for the rights of individuals in a white-majority society still stained with racism, and the personification of black achievement. No black American has ever held a higher government office, and none will until a black person is elected President.
Marshall’s thinning silver hair is combed straight back. At 81, his wife and friends complain, he is heavier than ever because he refuses to exercise. He wears two hearing aids, and sometimes his still smooth face is suddenly etched with tears caused by glaucoma that keeps him from driving and forces him to hold papers close to his eyes as he reads. But he reads constantly. His massive desk at the court is covered with papers, letters, law books and pictures.
Save for a 1988 documentary he did with columnist Carl Rowan, Marshall hasn’t given any interviews while on the court. As he talks about his extraordinary career, his voice is gruff; he often mumbles or gives brusque answers to questions.
Marshall’s life is a reflection of the changing 20th Century. It began in a sharply segregated town of ordinary people--Baltimore--in 1908. “The only thing different between the South and Baltimore was trolley cars,” recalls Marshall. “They weren’t segregated. Everything else was segregated.”
Marshall was the great-grandson of a slave named Thoroughgood; both his grandfathers owned large grocery stores in Baltimore. As a boy, Marshall did not have a burning desire to fight segregation and rarely felt uncomfortable about race. He lived in a nice house. His mother taught kindergarten and his father held various jobs.
As young Thurgood grew, his parents and grandparents encouraged him to adjust to segregation. “Well, the truth is, you learn to take it,” Marshall says. “I was taught to go along with it, not to fight it unless you could win it. The only thing was if somebody calls you a nigger.” His father ordered Marshall to fight if anyone called him that.
Marshall’s high school life was full of circumstances that would later prove to be significant. As a mediocre student and a cutup, he was punished often, made to read the U. S. Constitution aloud. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew it by heart. The school he attended was next to a police station. He remembers spending afternoons listening to the police beat up black prisoners and tell some to shut up before they talked themselves into a death sentence. For amusement, Marshall’s father sometimes took his son to the local courthouse to watch trials.
In September, 1925, Marshall went off to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., a premed student hoping to graduate from dental school. But he and the biology teacher argued constantly, and Marshall failed the course. He was thrown out of the college twice for fraternity pranks.
Then, in his junior year he married Vivian (Buster) Burey, a beautiful, energetic student at the University of Pennsylvania he had met on a weekend trip.
She helped him settle down at Lincoln, a school for bright, black males founded by a Presbyterian minister and staffed by an all-white faculty. There, Marshall showed little interest in civil rights issues until fellow students--among them Cab Calloway, who went on to fame as a cabaret dancer; Langston Hughes, the writer, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became president of Nigeria--began to argue with him, and a key question came to a schoolwide vote: Should the Lincoln faculty be integrated?
Although Marshall voted the first time with the majority of Lincoln’s upperclassmen to keep the faculty white, the debate on the issue started a radical shift in his thinking. His mother had taught him to go along so he could get along in a segregated world. But his father’s more subtle message, he began to realize, was to fight. Confused, Marshall went to his favorite professor, sociologist Robert M. Labaree, who told him he should fight segregation and that the faculty should be integrated.
When the issue came up again, Marshall voted for integration. The faculty was integrated two years later.
After graduating from Lincoln in 1930 with a degree in humanities, Marshall enrolled at Howard University’s all-black law school in Washington, where he again heard the message to fight segregation.
Charles H. Houston had transformed Howard’s law school from a “dummy’s retreat” night school to a rigorous day school for students committed to using legal knowledge to change segregated society. Marshall would later say that everything he knew about the law Houston had pounded into his head.
“He taught us with an emphasis on the Constitution,” Marshall recalls. “And basically, he said you had to be not as good as the average white lawyer, you had to be better, because you wouldn’t get a break on an even basis.”
Although his class began with more than 30 students, only six graduated. Marshall was the No. 1 student.
After graduation, to impress the devastation of segregation on his star pupil, Houston took Marshall on a trip through the South. Traveling anonymously in Houston’s old automobile, and prohibited from patronizing most motels and restaurants, they stayed overnight with local black lawyers and ate from bags of fruit they carried with them.
Shortly after their return, Houston had Marshall assist him in the case of George Crawford, a black man charged with murdering a white man in Loudoun County, Va. Crawford was convicted and given life.
“We won it,” Marshall says of the case. “If you got a Negro charged with killing a white person in Virginia and you got life imprisonment, then you’ve won. Normally they were hanging them in those days.”
Houston went on to New York to run the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund while Marshall returned to Baltimore to open a one-man law firm.
Though he couldn’t afford it, Marshall still made time for the fight against segregation. Representing the local NAACP, he negotiated with white store owners who sold to blacks but would not hire them. He joined John L. Lewis’ effort to unionize black and white steelworkers. And he persuaded a college graduate who wanted to go to law school to apply to the University of Maryland, which did not accept blacks into its law school program.
Houston came to Baltimore and helped argue the case, in which Marshall told the court: “What is at stake here is more than the rights of my client; it is the moral commitment stated in our country’s creed.” No one expected them to win; they were simply trying to set up a case that could be appealed. “But Judge Eugene O’Dunne said no. He said we won right there,” Marshall says.
“The colored people in Baltimore were on fire when Thurgood did that,” recalls Juanita Jackson Mitchell, an NAACP activist in Baltimore. “We didn’t know about the Constitution. He brought us the Constitution as a document like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments.”
In 1936, after three years of private practice, Marshall was invited by Houston to join the NAACP’s national office in New York as assistant special counsel. Two years later, Houston returned to practice in Washington and Marshall was appointed to his post. For the next 20 years, he traveled the country, using the Constitution to force state and federal courts to protect black Americans’ rights.
The work was dangerous; Marshall often wondered if he would end up dead or in the jails with those he was trying to defend. He lived out of suitcases, hopped trains in and out of small towns dedicated to white supremacy, and lived the segregated life he was challenging.
Though many of his clients were ushered off to years in prison despite their innocence, the risks Marshall took paid off in a mass of legal precedents. Among the successes:
* He ended the use of racially restrictive covenants to keep blacks from buying houses;
* He argued the case that ended the all-white primary system in Texas (he had already garnered such a reputation among blacks that, during the Texas case, Duke Ellington stopped his tour for a week to sit in the courtroom to watch him in action);
* He won cases calling for black teachers to be paid salaries equal to those of whites.
Between cases, Marshall was involved with other events and personalities in the American black-white struggle. He was denounced by Muslims as a “half-white son of a bitch.” He met Malcolm X once and “we spent the whole time calling each other a bunch of sons of bitches.”
At the invitation of various federal and state officials, he investigated almost every race riot between 1940 and 1960. “The one thing you get out of race riots,” he says, “is that no guilty person ever gets hurt. The innocent people get hurt.”
In the late 1940s, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, called him to ask if he would help a young ballplayer named Jackie Robinson straighten out his financial affairs.
At the request of President Harry S. Truman, Marshall traveled to the Far East in 1951 to review treatment of black soldiers under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Marshall remembers asking MacArthur why there were no blacks in the elite group guarding the general. He was told none was qualified by performance on the battlefield.
“I said, ‘Well, I just talked to a Negro yesterday, a sergeant who has killed more people with a rifle than anybody in history. And he’s not qualified?’ And he (MacArthur) said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well now, general, remember yesterday you had that big band playing at the ceremony over there?’ He said, ‘Yes, wasn’t that wonderful?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘Now, general, just between you and me: Goddammit, don’t you tell me that there’s no Negro that can play a horn.’ That’s when he said for me to go.”
Today Marshall says the general was a racist: “What else can you say? Every other branch of the armed forces was desegregated, but he wouldn’t budge. And when he left, the Army desegregated, too. Right away.”
Marshall’s greatest victory came in 1954, when he led the legal team that challenged school segregation before the Warren court. He would later comment that the Brown decision “probably did more than anything else to awaken the Negro from his apathy to demanding his right to equality.”
In February, 1955, Marshall’s wife, Buster, began to fail from cancer. He stayed at home with her for the last weeks of her life, not answering phone calls, not going out except to get food.
He remained single for a year, dating Cecilia Suyat, a secretary who worked at the NAACP. Finally, he asked her to marry him. She said no. Suyat, who is of Philippine ancestry, thought Marshall would come in for too much criticism if he married her. Eventually, however, she agreed.
Between 1955 and 1960, Marshall’s legal team at the NAACP filed seven major cases dealing with the right of black children to an education. In 1957, he represented the nine black Little Rock, Ark., students who tried to integrate Central High School, challenging segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus and Arkansas moderate Sen. J. William Fulbright.
By 1959, Marshall was known internationally as “Mr. Civil Rights,” and in polls among black Americans he either beat or tied Martin Luther King Jr. for the title of most important black leader. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called to ask for campaign advice.
After 1960, Marshall began talking about joining a private law firm and “making money.” But he was also intrigued by the prospect of a federal judgeship on the appeals court level.
After Kennedy won the election--a close victory that would have been impossible without overwhelming black support--pressure began to build to appoint blacks to important jobs. Marshall saw a vacancy on the U. S. Court of Appeals and let it be known that he wanted it. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy fought the idea, telling his brother that it would cost too much politically to get Marshall, a man despised by Southern segregationists, confirmed.
President Kennedy finally, though, was persuaded to ignore his brother’s caution and nominate Marshall for an appellate seat. But when he sent Marshall’s name to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Marshall wasn’t scheduled for confirmation hearings for eight months. In the book “Kennedy Justice,” Committee Chairman James Eastland of Mississippi is quoted as instructing Robert Kennedy to tell the President that Eastland would “give him the nigger” if Kennedy would nominate conservative judge Harold Cox of Mississippi to a district court seat. After Kennedy nominated Cox, Marshall was confirmed by the Senate.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Marshall his solicitor general. Representing the government before the Supreme Court, he twice volunteered information about illegal wiretaps that caused the court to throw out the government case. He also argued a case that resulted in the court voting to adopt the Miranda rule, requiring police to inform suspects of their rights.
His nomination to the Supreme Court in 1967, like his nomination to the Court of Appeals, was a difficult affair, bitterly opposed by four Southern senators on the Judiciary Committee. Nevertheless, Marshall was confirmed by a 69-11 vote.
Over the years, Johnson had discovered that he and Marshall shared an appreciation for fine bourbon and political talk. In January, 1973, a week before he died, the former President telephoned Marshall and spoke about how dearly his appointment had cost him.
Marshall remembers that Johnson was “heartbroken” about his decision not to seek re-election in 1968. And while his withdrawal from the race is usually associated with the country’s bitter division over the Vietnam War, Johnson told Marshall that it was his appointment of blacks to high offices that destroyed his chances.
“He thought that moving me here was what killed him off,” Marshall said. “He felt that they (Johnson’s enemies) used the Vietnam War as the excuse. He told me that as late as about a week before he died.”
In their last phone conversation, Johnson told Marshall: “More and more I’m sure I’m right, and I’m going to write about it.” Today, the justice speaks of Johnson with passion. “I loved that man,” he says.
Throughout his time on the court, Marshall has remained a strong advocate of individual rights. His position has not changed, but as his fellow justices came and went, Marshall began to find himself on the ideological left. On the conservative Rehnquist court, he is at the far left with only one compatriot, William Brennan.
Marshall blames former President Ronald Reagan for some of the backsliding on civil rights, calling him the worst President on civil rights in his lifetime. Asked recently if he had ever wanted to be chief justice, Marshall showed a spark of interest. But when it was suggested that Reagan could have appointed him, he said, “I wouldn’t do the job of dog catcher for Ronald Reagan.”
One of the more morbid aspects of the history of the Supreme Court is the constant discussion of the justices’ ages and how much longer they will be able to serve. Presidents are forever eager to influence the balance of the court by making as many appointments during their terms as possible. Marshall has never been pleased by the death watch, but he’s used to it; for two decades, he has been dealing with those who are anxious to see him replaced.
In 1970, when he was in Bethesda Naval Hospital with pneumonia, a doctor told him that President Richard M. Nixon had asked for his medical reports. Marshall told the doctor he could send them to Nixon but with two words written on the outside of the folder. Marshall wrote in large black script: “NOT YET!”
He has even heard the same questions from Democrats. In 1979, he says, two White House aides called him and suggested that he quit the court so President Jimmy Carter could name a new justice; he slammed the phone down.
These days Marshall is straight-forward about how soon he will retire. “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it,” he says. “I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”
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