The Shoulders of Justice: Justice Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood-Marshall“We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall.” – Washington Afro-American editorial after Thurgood Marshall’s death

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King was an august civil rights presence whose work resonates across races and nations and religions around the world. His holiday is richly deserved.

Yet much of what King was able to achieve on the streets of Montgomery and Memphis and Washington D.C., has only lasted to this day because of the works of numerous other men, chief among them a lawyer, a judge, a Solicitor General, and a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. As journalist Juan Williams relates in his Marshall biography, Marshall “rejected King’s peaceful protest as rhetorical fluff, which accomplished no permanent change in society.” He believed instead that long-lasting change would come through the courts, not the streets, that once blacks and whites had equal rights under the law, they would rise or fall based on their own ability.

Williams proposes that this viewpoint was a direct descendant of Marshall’s experience growing up in the black middle class of turn of the century Baltimore.  There his family was proud, politically active and successful.  His perspective on integration was therefore radically different than someone who would have grown up in Deep South, or even in the North where few blacks were present.

It is perhaps because of this relatively well-off upbringing that Marshall was, for lack of a better term, a slacker in school.  After attending Colored High, the only high school for black children in Baltimore, Marshall enrolled at Lincoln University, America’s first degree-granting black university. According to Marshall biographer, Carl T. Rowan, Marshall was suspended or on the verge of being thrown out of Lincoln University every year he attended. “He was accused of being involved in drunken celebrations after football games, of hazing underclassmen viciously, of leading a strike for better food.” When his friends were studying for exams, Marshall would stay up all night playing cards. He was also engaged at least nine times before he first married.

So what turned Thurgood Marshall from underachieving college student into, by any measure, the greatest civil rights lawyer of the 20th century? There are as many stories of what turned Marshall around as there are biographies about him. However all biographies agree on one thing – Thurgood Marshall’s path in life was irrevocably changed when he applied to the University of Maryland School of Law.

In 1930, Maryland Law, like all professional schools in the South, did not admit black students. Marshall applied and was rejected solely based on the color of his skin. He was instead forced to attend a school further away, more expensive, and less prestigious than his own in-state institution, Howard University Law School. It was at Howard that Marshall met the man who would change his life, Charles H. Houston, Dean of the Law School.

As Rawn James Jr. explains, Dean Houston refused to have Howard remain a second-rate institution for blacks who could not attend the white schools. Under his leadership, Howard became a full-time, rigorous, ABA-accredited law school. It also became a training ground for civil rights lawyers who would rid the country of the stain of legalized segregation. According to Marshall, Houston was creating not just lawyers, but social engineers.

It was with Dean Houston that Marshall started his NAACP journey. Howard faculty and students defended George Crawford, a black man from Virginia accused of murdering two white women. With no murder weapon and no witnesses, but in front of a jury of twelve white men from Virginia, George Crawford was almost guaranteed to receive the death penalty. Thanks to the Howard team, he received a life sentence instead. Marshall and Houston celebrated that as a victory. It would be the first of many.

In June 1933, Thurgood Marshall graduated from Howard Law first in his class.  However, large Baltimore firms did not hire black lawyers. They instead had to run solo practices.  Marshall went into private practice for a year. But making a living as a private practice lawyer, particularly an African-American one, was difficult in the Great Depression. Fortunately his old friend and mentor, Dean Houston still looked out for him. He encouraged the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP to hire Marshall as an attorney. In 1934, Thurgood Marshall started working for the NAACP. The rest, as they say, is history.

To cover what Thurgood Marshall accomplished in his lifetime would take far more words than I have available. However, I will relate one case that may have been, in the grand scheme of history, both his most important and his most satisfying.

In 1934, Marshall and Houston represented Donald Murray, a promising black student denied admission to the University of Maryland School of Law because, in the words of his rejection letter, “The University of Maryland does not admit Negro students.” Marshall argued before the Maryland Court of Appeals that since Maryland did not in fact provide a “separate but equal” law school for black students, the state was in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court of Appeals agreed and ordered the University to admit black law students.  It was a winning strategy that Marshall and the NAACP would use time and time again. That Marshall himself had been denied admission to the same school five years prior may have been icing on the victory cake.

In 1980 the University of Maryland School of Law opened a new law library on their campus. Fittingly, they called it the Thurgood Marshall Law Library.

Thurgood Marshall died on January 24, 1993. By that time, MLK Day had been signed into law for ten years. Marshall and King had their differences, but without the work of both of them, the hard-fought civil rights victories of the 20th century would never have been achieved. As Michael Long writes, “For twenty long years before King assumed leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Thurgood Marshall … struggled day and night against racial discrimination and segregation in schools, transportation, the military, business, voting booths, courtrooms and neighborhoods.” When King says that he has been to the mountaintop, “it was Marshall’s shoulders that King stood on.”

Happy MLK Day, everyone.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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