Marshall Bore Civil Rights Banner in Supreme Court

Article excerpt

MANY of the greatest victories for the rights of racial minorities in the United States this century have been courtroom victories.

No one has been more significant in that legal history than Thurgood Marshall. Long before he served as the first and only black member of the Supreme Court - from 1967 until 1991 - he was the lawyer who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case before the high court in 1954.

The decision forced racial desegregation in more than a dozen states, banned separate-but-equal racial school policies, and still forces school desegregation all over the country.

As chief counsel for the legal strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People through the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Marshall engineered the litigation strategy that the civil rights movement used to break down segregation.

By the time Marshall died this past weekend, he had grown increasingly angry and frustrated over recent trends in court decisions. As Presidents Reagan, then Bush, consolidated conservative majorities on the Supreme Court, he wrote bitter dissents in decision after decision.

His most noted role on the court was as a sort of reality check on how the law looked from the point of view of the disenfranchised. Court-watchers describe the "earthiness" and streetwise sense he brought to the dialogue of the court after his appointment by President Johnson.

Marshall's pioneering work as a lawyer, as much as anyone's, brought an end to the legal separation of the races in schools and public places.

The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, was ready to hear Marshall's arguments and transformed the role of the court into an active agent of social change. The Brown desegregation decision, wrote University of Chicago law professor Dennis Hutchinson in the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, "ignited a legal and social revolution in race relations and constitutionalism. …

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