The Accomplished Life of Thurgood Marshall
Even Marshall's exalted status as a civil rights leader understates his importance and impact. (history)
The slow disassembling of America’s racism owes a great deal of gratitude to one man, not Martin Luther King Jr., but Thurgood Marshall. The lawyer, activist, and eventual Supreme Court Judge helped turn the tide for civil rights as much as any human being in American history. Brown v. Board of Education headlines an endless list of legal battles Marshall successfully waged.
The breadth and scale of his impact simply beggars belief. Furthermore, as a black man born in 1908, Marshal literally risked his life for the cause but also walked the straight and narrow to absolute perfection. If he had ever so much as stepped a toe out of line, you can be assured some racist politicians with closets full of skeletons would have pulled him down, purely on account of his race.
Raised A Lawyer
Many of Thurgood Marshall’s strengths and virtues reflect his rigorous upbringing. Even his real name, Thoroughgood Marshall, spoke of a generosity spirit that portended the rest of his life. However, as even he admitted, it was a mouthful. “By the time I reached the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that out and had shortened it to Thurgood.”
His father, who worked at a country club, pushed Marshal into a life of law without ever vocalizing it. Young Thurgood often debated legal discussions with his dad and spent many a dinner defending his every statement at the dinner table. As Marshall put it, “He never told me to be a lawyer, but he turned me into one.” His parents wanted more for their children and made it an expectation. “It was taken for granted that we had to make something of ourselves. Not much was said about it; it was just in the atmosphere of the home,” said Marshall.
A Legal Activist
After attending Lincoln University and Howard University’s law school, Marshall immediately went to work, righting the wrongs for African American teachers. His mother, who was a teacher, regularly begged those universities to accept late payments on account of her unfairly marginal salary. Her son successfully argued against pay discrimination for African-American teachers in his hometown of Maryland and 10 other southern states.
Even as a lawyer, Marshall needed to work a second job to make ends meet. Perhaps the greatest lawyer of the 20th century moonlighted at a health clinic, treating sexually transmitted diseases even as he prepared a landmark case to integrate the University of Maryland!
Life On The Line
While working for the NAACP in the ‘40s, Marshal actually risked his life to help defend a group of black men in Columbia, Tennessee. After making a furtive escape from the town, the activist group was ambushed by locals on the highway. Marshall was separated from his group and arrested on false charges. He believed he would have been lynched had his co-workers not disobeyed orders from the local authorities.
Supreme Court Seat
Over many years as a lawyer and eventually a judge, Marshall faced more scrutiny than any other public figure of his time. J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly directed the FBI to investigate Marshall for communist connections during the red scare. He also faced more hours of questioning from despicably racist southern senators before earning his Supreme Court nomination. They imposed a political history test eerily similar to the Jim Crow-era literacy test.
Of course, Marshall passed interminable audits with flying colors. However, his legacy remains tinged with the echoes of American bigotry. Even as recently as 2010, when Supreme Court Elena Kagan came under questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the focus was Marshall, who served as a mentor to Kagan.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Jon Kyl, and Sen. Chuck Grassley all criticized Marshall’s work as “a judicial activist.” As if working to balance the scales for minorities hurt America, Kagan aptly put Marshall’s legacy into perspective. “This was a man who created opportunities for so many people in this country and improved their lives. I would call him a hero. I would call him the greatest lawyer of the twentieth century.”
Tags: 1960s | U.S. Supreme Court
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