When we think of African-American leaders, notable figures, and people who were directly instrumental in the modern civil rights movement and the shaping of the renovation of America, we must emphasize a prominent attorney named, Thurgood Marshall. This man, from humble beginnings, known as Mr. Civil Rights, was and still is the most important lawyer in this country to date. Why? What did he do?
Thurgood Marshall set this country on a course which led to all the fundamental changes post slavery regarding blacks and whites. He was the seed planted in our larger courts, by which MLK and his contemporaries began the modern day civil rights movement. Marshall was born during the days of segregation when Plessy v. Ferguson guided race relations and framed public education.
Graduating top of his class in both high school and law school, he was refused admission to University of Maryland. Schools were deemed separate but equal, yet upon traveling into the Jim Crow south, he saw that schools for blacks had no running water, no desks for students and were usually not structurally sound buildings to house and educate poor black children. At one time, blacks were forbidden to attend school and learn basic skills, and were subjected to great punishment and even death if found to be literate at the most basic level. Plessy v. Ferguson, which came after slavery era, determined that blacks could learn, but there wasn’t a hint of equality. In fact, blacks could not look a white person directly in their eye without being punished.
The entire nation went to see D.W. Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation, in the 1920s, which portrayed blacks as savage, animalistic and dangerous on all fronts. If slavery itself did not malign blacks in this country, that movie fueled the next level slave-driven system called, Jim Crow, separate but equal, and spawned an incredible rise in lynchings across the south. Blacks were being lynched and hung from trees, after brutalized, everywhere, while lifeless bodies of black men remained strung from random trees to serve as a reminder of the anger and resentment felt by potentially bankrupt white vigilante mobs.
There was segregation in the north as well, but the violence was not as pronounced and poverty was not solely confined to one area. Blacks lived among immigrant whites and poor blacks lived among more affluent blacks all in the same neighborhood. Thurgood had dreams of attending law school, and when applied to University of Maryland in his home state, he was denied admission. Even though he graduated at the top of his class, it didn’t matter, because colleges were segregated too. All-white schools were just that-all white. He discovered a small part-time school in which blacks could attend and study and that was Howard University. Once again, he graduated at the top of his class in law school, and began his practice soon after.
Marshall, through his travels with a former colleague and professor at Howard, began to make his first move towards civil rights, and knew instinctively that attacking Plessy wouldn’t go very far in the political climate. Geniusly, he decided to enforce that decision instead. Blacks couldn’t vote and so no representation was in the political arena. Thus he chose education, which was Plessy. If separate was to be equal, he argued that there be equal facilities and opportunities in education. Demands were made to the courts for black institutions be equal to whites, and this would mean the building of better schools for blacks to attend. The cost would have been prohibitive, so it was a measure of forcing school integration in order to afford the same to blacks as afforded by whites.
While the nation went through a depression around wartime, Marshall took up the cause of blacks, fighting in a segregated armed forces, and returning to lives of subservience, and same climate, hopeless job opportunities and still treated as 2nd class citizens. Being called ‘boy’ was a norm heard by black men, and worse than that, these were often men who served and fought for this country in the military. Marshall’s next goal was to tackle education once again, but this time, he discovered that black teachers, performing the same job as white teachers earned 1/5th of white teachers. Thus he fought that inequity.
Marshall fought against housing inequities, as well. He was affiliated with the NAACP as its legal advocate and helped to expand its reach on a national level, opening up offices around the country. Still focusing on inequity in education, he had amassed enough victories in the U.S. Supreme Court that he decided to argue againstPlessy and tear it down, since he had already proven to the courts that separate was never equal. Through working with the NAACP, he received complaints about public education, enough substantially founded cases that a conglomerate of five such cases prompted a new groundbreaking argument.
Choosing a ‘face’ of an impending class action lawsuit, he named this new suit, Brown. It became what we know is Brown vs. The Board of Education[Topeka, Kansas]. Named after a little 9 year old girl, Linda Brown, he argued this case which demanded that schools be integrated fully, as a matter of federal law. Marshall won this case, most widely known case in U.S. history. Public schools in this country were now required to be integrated, black and white students attending the same schools.
Mr. Marshall, prior to this case had also effectively integrated a law school by representing a young black man, a budding lawyer, who wished admittance at another white only law school in Texas. He won the case, by effectively taking the statement of the college’s Dean and presenting this clear argument for discrimination. Based on Plessy, its argument that separate must be equal, the resources afforded whites were not equal in any way to that for blacks. Cost prohibitive again to construct new facilities for blacks to become attorneys, in a fully accredited school, Marshall effectively integrated at least one institution of higher learning. Full integration of public schools in America was never enforced everywhere across the country. Today, over a half-century later, schools remain more segregated than ever.
Thurgood Marshall knew that inherently separated and segregated, our public schools were closely tied to more and more segregated housing, and thus he fought housing discrimination and the problems which perpetuated school segregation, inequality in employment opportunities, school resources gaps, prejudices and discrimination. He knew that these were all interwoven into and impacted the outcomes for blacks in America. A fight which must continue, Thurgood marshall is a man of color who must be taught about, studied and discussed in classrooms all over, for his fights are the very same fights which remain problematic for millions of blacks today.
He challenged America to stand by its most basic and fundamental value-laden, government-defining tenets. The continued fights and challenges must begin in the classroom, to be taken up, the torch passed to the next generation of leaders. There’s much more for children to discover, discuss, and learn about this country, its citizens[black and white], its past, its legacy and our future. Just as George Washington Carver was more than peanuts, Thurgood Marshall was more than just our nation’s first Supreme Court Justice. Attorney, and Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall became America’s 1st appointed black man on our Supreme Court, and today he still holds the title of being the only attorney to win the most cases in Supreme Court than any other attorney since our founding.