On June 13 of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a black attorney named Thurgood Marshall to a vacant seat to the Supreme Court. A few weeks later, Marshal was confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 69 to 11 and he began judging cases that fall.
Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908. He went to Frederick Douglas High School and later attended Howard University. In just the names of these two institutions that harbored him, one can read the story of American development. Douglas was a slave who rose to prominence fighting the institution of slavery and Howard University is named after Oliver Otis Howard, a Union General and hero of the Civil War which ended slavery. Marshal was educated by his parents to know and understand the history of his country and he was to be one of the authors of the next chapter in that story.
By the time he took a seat on the court, Marshal had argued 32 cases before the court and prevailed in 29 of them. Most of those were segregation cases and included Brown v the Board of Education which set in motion the desegregation of schools around the country. He and others relentlessly attacked the laws that presumed governments had the right to dictate rights and privileges based on race long after a war settled the issue slavery under the law. The segregation laws, referred to still as “Jim Crow” laws, did not fall easily but fall they did. There was no loose and foolish talk of “the new Jim Crow” when the real “Jim Crow” was there to fight.
In 1987, on the bicentennial of the adoption of the US Constitution, Marshal said the following:
“… the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and major social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”
So, Marshal believed the American order was based on individual rights and freedoms and he worked to secure them for all American citizens. He made no mention of “original sin” in the Constitution, he did not declare that government should address any sort of abstract “institutional racism” and he certainly did not declare the entire nation as flawed. He was a lawyer and he brought lawsuits and judged cases on the merits they represented. Where there were problems, he worked to fix them in a clean, orderly and judicial way.
Thurgood Marshal was a serious man for a serious time. When Marshal passed, another serious black man, Clarence Thomas, took his place. Thomas is different from Marshal in judicial philosophy but not in intent. Both men represent the best in black legal and academic achievement and one can only hope, in this unserious times, when emotion and political contingency have invaded the courts, that there will be a new crop of black legal voices who adhere to the premises that Marshal inhabited.