Thurgood Marshall, 84, Dies; Civil Rights Giant : Supreme Court: First black justice was a leader in the legal battle to end forced segregation in the U.S.


Retired Justice Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights giant who as a lawyer won the landmark victories that ended forced segregation in the United States and then became the first black justice of the Supreme Court, died Sunday at the age of 84.

Marshall, who stepped down in 1991 because of failing health, was forced last week to cancel plans to swear in Vice President Al Gore during the inaugural ceremony. He had entered Bethesda Naval Hospital and suffered heart failure at about 2 p.m. EST.

Though best known for his 24 years on the Supreme Court, many legal scholars consider him the most important lawyer of the 20th Century because of his role in ending institutional segregation in the United States.

Growing up in Baltimore, Marshall, the great-grandson of slaves, could not enroll at his local public school, nor could he and his family shop in downtown department stores.

Though a fine student, he also could not enroll in the University of Maryland Law School. Simply because he was black, all those doors were closed to him.

As a legal counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall challenged racism in the courts throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, in the early 1950s, as head of the defense fund, he presented the issue squarely to the U.S. Supreme Court, an all-white, all-male panel that for more than a century had blithely ignored claims of racial injustice.

Could a nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal," Marshall asked, continue to deny basic human rights to some of them solely because of the color of their skin? The answer came on May 17, 1954, in a case known as Brown vs. Board of Education.

By a unanimous vote, the high court reversed itself in the Topeka, Kan., case and ruled that segregation was "inherently unequal" and thereby violated the Constitution. That decision, and the scores of rulings that followed it, changed the face of the nation and gave new opportunity to millions--and not just to black Americans.

The principle of equal treatment under law also led to legal victories for women, members of ethnic minorities and the disabled.

In a tribute to Marshall, President Clinton noted his powerful impact on the nation.

"He was a giant in the quest for human rights and equal opportunity in the whole history of our country," the President said. "Every American should be grateful for the contributions he made as an advocate and as a justice of the United States Supreme Court."

Harvard University law professor Laurence H. Tribe called Marshall "the greatest lawyer in the 20th Century. He was to the law what Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were to social issues."

For his part, Marshall refused to play the role of a great, gray eminence of the law. Instead, he was gruff and often grumpy in his later years. He kept his law clerks amused with wry comments about the issues of the day.

On the day he retired from the high court, he was asked how he would like to be remembered.

"That he did what he could with what he had," the aging justice replied.

The simple directness of that comment was reflected in much of Marshall's legal work. Unlike some of his court brethren who might enjoy parsing the bankruptcy code, Marshall took on the major legal issues of his day and espoused simple, straightforward principles.

On abortion, for example, he insisted that the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy belonged to the woman alone. He tolerated no exceptions.

He was equally unyielding, but less successful, in opposing the death penalty. His many years representing black defendants in Southern courtrooms had convinced him that capital punishment was imbued with racism and was fundamentally unfair.

As a Supreme Court justice, he voted against every death sentence presented to him. By the time of his retirement in 1991, he did so alone.

Marshall joined the court in 1967 at the high water mark of the liberal era under then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. With a solid majority of liberal appointees, the court had insisted on the desegregation of schools and state colleges, expanded the rights of criminal defendants and broadly protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

But just a year later, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency and soon sent four "law-and-order" appointees to the high court. Increasingly thereafter, Marshall found himself as a dissenter on a court that was moving to the right.

Then a heavy smoker who resisted physical exercise at all cost, Marshall in the early 1970s began to suffer heart trouble. In 1971, he checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital for a physical and was surprised to learn that Nixon's aides had sought copies of his medical records.

Amused, Marshall told his doctors that the White House could have the records if he could add a brief note. "Not yet!," it read. He served another 20 years on the nation's highest court.

His seat was filled by Clarence Thomas, a black conservative appointed by President George Bush.

Marshall was born July 2, 1908, as Thoroughgood Marshall and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood near downtown Baltimore. His father worked as the head steward at an exclusive yacht club, while his mother taught elementary school.

As a student, young Marshall was something of a class cutup. But his misbehavior gave him his first experience with the Constitution. As punishment, he was forced to memorize parts of the document.

"Before I left school, I knew the whole thing by heart," he said years later. By then, he also changed his name to something more manageable, Thurgood.

After Marshall was graduated from high school in 1925, he enrolled at Lincoln University, a highly regarded black college in Pennsylvania. His classmates included entertainer Cab Calloway and author Langston Hughes, who later described Marshall as "the loudest individual in the dormitory, good-natured, rough, ready and uncouth."

By his own account, Marshall did not hit the books with a singular passion. "He posted a B average in his academic work, while encouraging the firm conviction among his classmates that he never cracked a book," wrote author Richard Kluger in "Simple Justice," his history of the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

But Marshall married in his senior year and settled down. Because the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore was closed to him, he enrolled instead at the Howard University Law School, an hour's train ride away in Washington.

There, Marshall came under the spell of the new Harvard-educated dean, Charles H. Houston, who was determined that his students--the best and brightest among young black attorneys--would not only be well trained in the law but would also use their abilities to advance the cause of justice.

Marshall was graduated at the top of his class in 1933 and began a solo law practice in Baltimore during the depths of the Depression. He claimed that in his first year he ran up a net loss of $1,000.

But in 1936, an opportunity arose. The new NAACP Legal Defense Fund needed a general counsel, and Marshall moved to New York to take the post. For the next 25 years, he traveled the country representing black clients in all manner of cases.

Along the way, he encountered situations that later found their way into stories that would entertain and enlighten his colleagues on the high court.

One story had Marshall arriving in town only to learn that his client had been lynched that afternoon. Another told of a woman's last-minute recantation of a rape charge, sparing his client from a similar fate.

In those years, however, he also assembled the legal team that challenged segregation in the courts. To Marshall, the issue was simple. The 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1868 to give newly freed slaves the "equal protection of the laws." Nearly a century later, that command was still not enforced.

He won rulings prohibiting the exclusion of blacks from political primaries because of their race and barring segregation on interstate buses and trains. He and other NAACP lawyers represented Autherine Lucy in her successful fight to win admission to the University of Alabama, as well as the black students who gained entry to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 over the opposition of Gov. Orval Faubus.

In the turbulent 1960s, his clients also included the black students who staged lunch counter "sit-ins" and integrated the Southern bus lines in "freedom rides." Over the years, he won 29 of 32 cases that made it to the Supreme Court.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the U.S. solicitor general, the government's attorney before the high court. Late in his life, Marshall described this job as his most satisfying.

On June 13, 1967, Marshall made history again when Johnson nominated him as the first black to join the Supreme Court.

As a member of the high court, Marshall could be counted on to speak for the underdog and to defend the rights of the blacks, minorities and others who had suffered legal oppression.

In private, as well as in public, he enjoyed tweaking some of his conservative, white colleagues. Warren E. Burger, the chief justice appointed by Nixon, was a particular target. Marshall greeted him in court hallways by saying: "What's shakin', chief baby?"

In his later years, Marshall grew dismayed when some of his colleagues seemed to assume that blacks had won full equality with the right to vote and the right to attend public schools.

"The position of the Negro today in America is the tragic but inevitable consequence of centuries of unequal treatment," he wrote in a dissent in the 1978 case of University of California Regents vs. Bakke, which limited the use of "affirmative action" to benefit blacks. "Measured by any benchmark of comfort or achievement, meaningful equality remains a distant dream for the Negro."

By the mid-1980s, as appointees of GOP President Ronald Reagan came to dominate the court, Marshall had grown weary. He was badly overweight, and his eyesight was failing. Simply taking a few steps up to the bench at 10 a.m each morning left him puffing with exhaustion.

But when presented with a case of injustice, Marshall's anger--and his energy--seemed to revive. In 1986, the court heard the case of Lillian Garland, a young black woman from Los Angeles who had taken a brief leave to have a baby, as she was entitled to under California law.

However, when she sought to return to work, her employer, a savings and loan institution, said that her position had been filled. This violated California law, but before the Supreme Court, attorneys for the S&L; said the state law should be struck down because it conflicted with the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which demanded equal treatment for pregnant employees.

Because men were not guaranteed that they could return to their jobs after medical leave, the California law gave women preferential treatment, they argued.

Marshall was outraged, reportedly complaining to clerks about high-priced lawyers who had the nerve to use a law designed to help pregnant women as an excuse for taking their jobs away.

On Jan. 22, 1978, Marshall's booming voice filled the courtroom as he read a 6-3 ruling that upheld the California law and ensured that states could give special protections for working women who became pregnant.

But after the 1990 retirement of his liberal colleague and friend William J. Brennan, Marshall found himself increasingly isolated and alone on the court.

"I'm old and I'm coming apart," he said in explaining his retirement in June, 1991.

But his influence at the Supreme Court did not end there.

Since his retirement, several of his colleagues, including key Republican appointees, have spoken of his influence.

Rather than debate the law at the conference table, Marshall often told stories based on his real-life experiences--and those stories are not easily forgotten, they said.

At an appearance at Howard University, Justice David H. Souter called Marshall a "prophet for our times." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing in the Stanford Law Review, said Marshall's stories had "profoundly influenced me" during their 10 years together on the court.

Writing in the same issue, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said Marshall "reminds us of our moral obligation as a people to confront those tragedies of the human condition which continue to haunt even the richest and freest of countries."

Perhaps not surprisingly, those three justices emerged after Marshall's departure to form a more moderate coalition on the increasingly conservative court. As Kennedy put it, Marshall's voice "stays at the conference table in a powerful way."


1940--Marshall becomes director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

1954--Leads the legal team that won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case

1961--Is nominated by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York

1965--Is named U.S. solicitor general by President Lyndon B. Johnson

1967--Is appointed to the Supreme Court by Johnson

1991--Retires from the court due to health problems

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