Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Prevailing upon the American Dream: Thurgood Marshall and Brown V. Board of Education

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Prevailing upon the American Dream: Thurgood Marshall and Brown V. Board of Education

Article excerpt

They [the Framers of the Constitution] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all peoples of all colors everywhere. (Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Basler, 1953, p. 405-406)


Had Thurgood Marshall's accomplishments been limited to his victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), his stature as a great American would have been just and enduring. So important was Brown that Marshall did not need appointment to the Supreme Court to achieve greatness. It is not too much to say that the High Court needed Thurgood Marshall more than he needed the Court. There was much more to the man than this case, more before 1954 and more after. Nevertheless, it does no disservice to his memory to see the enormous achievement of Brown as a metaphor for his life and extrude from this revolutionary case Marshall's vision of America. Indeed, it honors America to view the case as a metaphor for what America can stand for when it transcends its racist past.

Thurgood Marshall's victory was much more than the vindication of a life in service to the concept of equal justice under law. It was a vindication of Lincoln's understanding of the Constitution. It was a vindication of America. Yet, as Lincoln prophesied, "the augmenting of the happiness and value of life to all peoples of all colors everywhere" will never be "perfectly attained." The struggle continues.

It would be easy to become despondent as one listens to the din of racist rhetoric which assaults the airwaves, yellows the print media, and calls forth Nazi-like hysteria from college audiences. Less virulent, but troubling nonetheless, was a recent experience in my own class on constitutional law. For the first time in my 20 years of teaching, a student of mine, a White female, argued forthrightly and forcibly for a segregated society, placing special emphasis on the public schools. Shrewdly and ironically, the student quoted only African American sources to support her conclusion that U.S. schools would be better able to deliver educational services if the races did not confront each other. Of course, the majority of the class rebutted her, often with surprising eloquence; nevertheless, the discussion revealed deep reservations among Black and White students that an integrated society was not possible, even if it were desirable. This, 40 years after Brown!

It would be easy to despair but wrong--wrong because doing so fails to live up to American optimism, because it denies the wisdom of Lincoln, and because it dishonors the vision of Thurgood Marshall, who had far more reason to despair but indulged himself less. To the complex depths of his being, Marshall felt the outrage, the obscene assault on human dignity, of racial segregation. His response was to right the wrong, spending little time despairing over it. In the process, he wrote himself into an honored place in American history. What could be more American than that?

Even before we examine the substance of Brown, before we draw from it a vision of American life, we see that Thurgood Marshall imbued it with perhaps the most characteristic of American virtues: If something is wrong, fix it. If it is difficult to fix, start now. If there are no tools readily available, fashion new ones. If you meet resistance, persevere and overcome. Above all, trust in your ability to outwork, outstay, and outsmart the enemies of justice. Do all this and you shall prevail. Do all this and you will prevail upon the American Dream to bring itself into greater actuality. Do all this and you, at the very least, will live the dream by embodying it within yourself. Thurgood Marshall prevailed.

I gotta argue these cases, and if I try this approach [relying upon generalities], those fellows [Justices Douglas and Frankfurter] will shoot me down in flames. …

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