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Thurgood Marshall: The Brain Of The Civil Rights Movement

4 minute read
Adam Cohen

Thurgood Marshall got his start traveling the South in a beat-up 1929 Ford with a colleague, banging out legal papers in the car on a manual typewriter. Taking on Jim Crow, the South’s entrenched regime of racial segregation, was dangerous work. When Marshall made the rounds of black schools in Mississippi, documenting their shacklike buildings and paltry textbooks, the state N.A.A.C.P. president arranged to have a hearse filled with armed men follow Marshall’s car for protection.

Marshall went on to become one of the most important lawyers of the 20th century. He was the architect of one of America’s most radical transformations: the removal of legal racism, root and branch, from the nation’s leading institutions. Just as important, Marshall’s personal journey–the grandson of a slave, he became the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court–was a shining example of the more open society he dedicated his life to achieving.

He was born in Baltimore, Md., in 1908, when it was still a sleepy Southern town, and he attended its segregated schools. After graduating from Howard Law School–the University of Maryland’s law school didn’t admit blacks–Marshall hung up a shingle in his hometown and did volunteer legal work for the local N.A.A.C.P. One of his early cases challenged pay gaps in education–black elementary school teachers in Maryland earned $621 a year, while white janitors made $960. Marshall’s mother was one of those underpaid teachers.

Working full time for the N.A.A.C.P., Marshall persuaded the Supreme Court to integrate Missouri’s all-white law school. He also got it to strike down Texas’ whites-only primary elections. And he prevailed on the court to stop Virginia from ordering blacks traveling through on interstate buses to move to the back of the bus. But Marshall’s greatest victory was in Brown v. Board of Education. That landmark ruling, handed down on May 17, 1954, held that “separate but equal” public schools for blacks and whites violated the Constitution. It caused a firestorm as the South vowed “massive resistance” to school integration. When Marshall appeared on NBC’s Youth Wants to Know, Georgia stations replaced the show with a taped address by segregationist Governor Herman Talmadge.

Marshall never doubted that his side would prevail in the end. “You can say all you want,” Marshall told a black newspaper publisher not long after Brown was decided, “but those white crackers are going to get tired of having Negro lawyers beating them every day in court.” In time Marshall would persuade the court to extend the Brown principles to public accommodations ranging from public housing to beaches.

In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Marshall to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Four years later, President Johnson named him Solicitor General–the government’s top Supreme Court lawyer–and in 1967 Johnson spoke of “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place” and named Marshall to the Supreme Court.

Marshall penned some of the court’s most important decisions, including a sweeping 1969 ruling upholding people’s right to possess pornography in their home and a 1972 decision striking down the death penalty because of the inconsistent way in which it was applied by judges and juries. He brought an iconoclastic perspective to the cloistered world of the high court. When fellow Justices struck down racial quotas in medical-school admissions, Marshall took issue with those who said poor whites should be given the same help as blacks. “There’s not a white man in this country who can say he never benefited from being white,” Marshall said. He could be bitingly acerbic, falling into slave dialect and calling the other Justices “Massa.” In 1980, when the University of Maryland Law School dedicated its new library to him, Marshall wouldn’t attend the ceremony. The school was just “trying to salve its conscience for excluding the Negroes,” he said. As the court grew colder to civil rights, he did little to hide his bitterness. In one of his last opinions before his retirement in 1991, Marshall complained that “power not reason is the new currency of this court’s decision making.” He died on Jan. 24, 1993.

The Constitution, Marshall once declared, was “defective from the start” because it permitted slavery. But he also recognized that its “true miracle” was not how it was conceived, but how it evolved. He forced the nation to evolve along with it.

Adam Cohen’s book on Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley is due out next spring

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