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JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL

Thurgood Marshall

Justice Thurgood Marshall ranks among the most celebrated black personalities of all time. His exemplary career in the legal field set the bar quite high for other aspiring African- Americans, but most importantly, helped put to rest the stereotype that African-Americans did not have what it takes to serve at the highest capacities of American society. He rose to become Solicitor-General of the United States, and was later appointed Supreme Court Justice, the highest honour in the legal profession, and a first for an African-American. Justice Marshall is fondly remembered for his role in the landmark case Brown V. Board of Education in 1954 that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2nd 1908 in the U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland to William and Norma Arica Marshall. His real name was Thoroughgood but he shortened it to Thurgood in elementary school to make it easier to spell. In 1910 the Marshall family moved from Baltimore to Harlem, New York, where his father William Marshall hoped to get a job with the New York Central Railroad. Thurgood's Aunt lived in New York so his family figured that by moving there, she would take care of him and his siblings. However when Thurgood was 6, his grandmother back in Baltimore had an accident and broke her leg. The Marshalls therefore moved back to Baltimore to take care of her. They settled in a respectable part of Baltimore called Druid Hill. This was a racially diverse neighbourhood and all indications are that the Marshalls were an average family, neither rich nor poor.

Childhood reports indicate that Thurgood Marshall was quite a talkative and argumentative kid. He apparently got into a lot of trouble in elementary school for his talkative ways and was often punished with memorizing sections of the U.S. Constitution. He thus became very well versed with the document at an early age. This coupled with the fact that he was naturally argumentative, established the base for a career in the legal profession. Looks like the gods were pushing the young Marshall into the legal field right from the start. His father William Marshall never had the luxury of attending College. He however loved watching court trials, and would often take the young Thurgood with him. This is how Thurgood got interested in the Legal field.

He graduated from High School in 1924, then only 16 years old. In 1925 he proceeded to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania to study Liberal Arts. With his argumentative ways still intact, he took a keen interest in Lincoln's debating team and became a star there. But this was not any other debating team. This was a team that respectfully competed against internationally acclaimed teams for example from Harvard University and Cambridge University of Great Britain. So as a star at Lincoln, Marshall was already in the big leagues. It was also at Lincoln that he took a keen interest in Civil Rights, and particularly the works of famed Civil Rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. Incidentally, DuBois' father had been President of Lincoln University. It was also at Lincoln that he met his girlfriend Vivian Burey, then a student at University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, who he later married in 1929. 1929 as you will remember was the year of the Stock Market crash that sent the United States and indeed the world into severe economic depression. Many businesses closed down leaving a large section of Americans unemployed. It thus became very frustrating for anyone to stay in school because hopes of securing a decent job after graduation were very low.

Marshall however pushed on with school and graduated with honours in January 1930. He then proceeded to Howard University Law School that same year. At Howard University Law School, Marshall was greatly inspired by one of his Professors, Charles Hamilton Houston, who he later credited with his entry into the Civil Rights movement and his legal achievements thereafter. Prof. Charles Hamilton Houston, or Charlie Houston as he was called, was a leading Civil Rights activist and a very strict Professor who drew tremendous respect from his students. He inspired Marshall and his other students to use the legal system to better the lives of African-Americans. Marshall graduated from Howard Law School in 1931 and became a practising Attorney. Due to the prevailing economic depression at that time, Marshall could not find any business. Charlie Houston came through for his best student by pulling some strings at the NAACP for Marshall to be an Assistant Special Counsel. This effectively made Marshall his assistant because at that time Charlie Houston was NAACP Special Legal Counsel. With the NAACP job, Thurgood Marshall and his wife moved to Harlem, New York, then a hub of African-Americans. In 1938, Marshall became NAACP's Chief Legal Officer after his friend and mentor Charlie Houston decided to give up the position.

One of his major victories as NAACP advocate came in 1944 when he won an appeal case in Smith V. Allwright. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that all-white Primary elections were unconstitutional. Earlier in 1941, Marshall had sued the Texas Democratic Party for barring an African-American, Sidney Hasgett from voting in the Democratic Primaries in Texas. He however lost the case. When another black voting rights case came up(Smith V Allwright), he did not shy away from it, eventhough he realized a lot of previous such cases had lost. Like in the previous cases, he lost this one too but won on appeal in 1944. In Shelley V Kraemer of 1948, Louis Kraemer had filed a lawsuit seeking to bar the Shelley family from moving into the neighbourhood(all whites). The neighbours had signed a "racial restrictive covenant", which basically prohibited any one of them from selling property to minorities. The Supreme Court in its decision held that while the covenant was okay in itself, legally enforcing it would be unconstitutional. With this victory Marshall scored a huge victory against racial segregation.

In the 1950's Marshall chose to focus his civil rights work on education. In one of the biggest legal cases in America, Brown V Board of Education, Linda Brown, an African-American girl from Topeka, Kansas was not allowed to attend Summer Elementary, a school just a few blocks from her house just because she was black and the school admitted only white students. Instead she was forced to attend a black school much further from her home and without adequate resources. Her case lost in Federal Court which borrowed largely from the 1896 Plessey V Fergusson "separate but equal" doctrine. Marshall and others filed an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The Supreme Court ruling read in part, in the field public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. This was probably the biggest civil rights achievement after the abolition of slavery and Marshall knew it. He realized, and I fully concurr, that the empowerment blacks would get from an intergrated education system would soften the way for the tough civil rights struggle ahead. More blacks would be aware of their rights as citizens, and ways to go about any government infringement on the said rights. But most importantly, education would be the surest source of financial stability, which was seriously lacking among many African-American households.

In late 1955 Marshal and his NAACP became aware of plans by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in protest to the Rosa Parks incident. In addition to the bus boycott, Rev. King, Jr. was also planning several civil disobedience activities to protest Montgomery's segregation laws. Initially, Marshall had grave reservations about Rev King's civil disobedience plans and this put him at loggerheads with a lot of civil rights activists. What his critics failed to understand was that Marshall was a legal scholar and all he knew was upholding the law. Civil disobedience by its very nature involved breaking the law, which was why Marshall was very apprehensive about it. In addition to this, he felt that increased civil disobedience would further inflame racial tensions, which according to him, were already at a sorry state. His critics however countered that the legal approaches he was proposing had no teeth, and did not make any difference on the ground. They specifically cited Brown V Board of Education saying eventhough it sounded good on paper, its effects were yet to be felt by African- Americans. His opposition to the Communist Party and his work in collaboration with the FBI to flush them out of the NAACP and America also alienated him from many black activists who identified with the Communist Party.

In 1959, famous Kenyan freedom fighter Tom Mboya visited the U.S. and met Thurgood Marshall. Mboya was so impressed with Marshall that he invited him to Kenya to help draft a new constitution for independent Kenya. Kenya at that time was getting ready to get independence from Britain. In fact it is Marshall's friendship with Mboya that is credited with the huge wave of Kenyan students coming to the U.S. for further studies beginning in the 1960s. Marshall visited Kenya in 1960 on Mboya's invitation. His visit however didnt sit well with the Brits and the Americans, who considered him a radical. Under pressure from the British, the Kenyans barred Marshall from attending the conference. From Kenya, Marshall travelled to London, England where he continued to lobby for the Kenyan cause. Marshall returned to the U.S. a changed man in many ways. His trip outside America had opened his eyes to a lot of things and gave him a new perspective in life. He was particularly surprised by Europe, where contrary to popular belief, racism was not as prevalent as it was in America. In Britain, he was treated like the scholar that he was unlike in America where the fact that he was black was always thrown at him. He thus came back to America with a renewed thirst for drastic civil rights reforms. Among the most notable signs of his change was his new found support for civil disobedience. You will recall that before his escapade out of America he had been very opposed to civil disobedience. In Garner V Lousiana of 1961, some black college students from Baton Rouge Louisiana were jailed and fined for conducting sit-ins at some local restaurants. Marshall, on behalf of the NAACP appealed their convictions before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. This would mark his last case as NAACP Advocate.

In 1961 U.S. President John F. Kennedy nominated Thurgood Marshall for Judgeship in New York's Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a nomination that was upheld in 1962. Nomination for Federal Judgeship is a huge honour for any American, but especially so for an African-American. After President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued his support for Marshall. In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and President Johnson signed it into law. This law banned discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin in public places where the rules of Interstate Commerce applied. It also desegregated public schools once and for all. President Lyndon B. Johnson continued with his commitment towards minorities by appointing some African Americans to key positions. He appointed Robert C. Weaver Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, making him the first African-American U.S. Cabinet member. He also appointed Hugh Robinson Major in the U.S. Army, another first for an African-American. In 1965, he appointed Marshall Solicitor General of the U.S. The Solicitor General assists the Attornery-General in carrying out his/her duties. He also suggests which cases should go to the Supreme Court and represents the government in Supreme Court cases. He therefore interracts a lot with Supreme Court officials.

In 1967 one of the Supreme Court Justices, Justice Clark retired. President Johnson used this opportunity to nominate Marshall to the Supreme Court. When the U.S. Senate upheld his nomination that same year, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He continued his dilligence at the U.S. Supreme Court and participated in the landmark Roe V Wade case of 1973 that legalized abortion. Another important case during his tenure as Supreme Court Justice was the 1978 Regents of the University of California v Bakke case where a white student, Allan Bakke was denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School because he was white. This was notwithstanding the fact that he had made better grades than some of the minorities admitted to the class. The was a case involving reverse discrimination. The Supreme Court Justices came back with a compromise decision saying the University could not deny Bakke admission just because he was white. They however also upheld affirmative action saying race could be used as one of the factors in school admission. Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 citing old age and its related health implications. On January 24th 1993, barely two years after his retirement, Justice Thurgood Marshall died. He died a folk hero among African-Americans and other civil rights activists, and a legend in the legal fraternity. A statue honouring his life accomplishments stands outside the Annapolis, Maryland State House.

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