Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

By C, John | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary


C, John, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall died in January 1993, and the line of mourners stretched around the block throughout the day he laid in state in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court Building. More than 18,000 people paid their respects that day. At the next day's funeral service at the National Cathedral more than 4,000 people were in attendance, including the President and the Vice-President of the United States. At that service, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rhenquist remarked that, with respect to the Supreme Court's motto "Equal Justice under Law," "Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall."

Marshall, born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908 of lower middle class African American parents, showed little promise of greatness as a youth. In fact, people thought him too timid and too good looking. By age 6 he had changed his name from "Thorogood" to Thurgood, showing an independent streak that would be a hallmark of his character for the rest of his life. By age 15, he had a job delivering hats for Mr. Schoen, a Jewish merchant. When trying to get on a bus, Marshall jostled a white woman. A white man intervened and tried to beat him up, calling him a nigger. Thurgood dropped the hats and started punching. He was arrested, and only by Mr. Schoen's intervention was he let go.

In high school, he was a good student, but he was also noted for his practical jokes. In punishment for one prank, he had to memorize the Constitution of the United States. That exercise sparked his lifelong interest in the law. At Lincoln University, his fees were paid by contributions from his extended family and by loans. During the summers, he worked with his father as a waiter, and Williams recounts the story that Marshall allowed a customer, a "big tipping old Senator" to call him a nigger for a whole week. When Marshall's father found out, and fired him for not challenging the insult, Marshall explained: "Now I figure it's worth about $20 to be called a nigger but the moment you've run out of them 20's I'm going to bust you in the nose." His father re-hired him. At Lincoln, though still mischievous, he made the college's championship debating team, an achievement that aided him in his application to law school.

Even though he wanted to attend the University of Maryland Law School, he had to settle for Howard University Law School because of Maryland's segregation policy. Without money to live in Washington, Marshall commuted from Baltimore to the District of Columbia every school day, leaving at 5:30 in the morning and coming home late at night. His mother had to pawn her rings and other small jewelry to send her son to school.

At Howard, Marshall worked hard, so distinguishing himself that the Law Dean, Charles Houston, a Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College and doctorate in law from Harvard, saw Marshall's potential, and the two became friends before Marshall's graduation. Before leaving law school, Marshall got a taste of what his life's work would be in the Crawford case. In this case a Black man, accused of raping and killing two white women in Virginia was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Marshall and Houston successfully appealed, reducing the sentence to life imprisonment, which at that time was a victory. In June, 1933, Marshall graduated. Of his class of 36 people, only six graduated. Marshall was the valedictorian.

Out of law school Marshall found it difficult to get work. But when in 1935 the NAACP decided that it would make an attempt to integrate the University of Maryland Law School, Marshall persuaded Charles Houston to let him be the lead lawyer. He won the case, a development that eventually propelled him to the NAACP's legal staff in 1937. With victory at the University of Maryland, the NAACP decided it was time to go South, and Marshall led the successful team when the Supreme Court ruled in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. …

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