Justice Thurgood Marshall dies Nation mourns Baltimore native, rights leader, 84 THURGOOD MARSHALL: 1908-1993

January 25, 1993|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr. | Albert Sehlstedt Jr.,Staff Writer

Thurgood Marshall, the indefatigable legal champion of America's mid-century civil rights movement, who became the first black person to serve on the Supreme Court, died yesterday of heart failure.

Justice Marshall, who had been in poor health for the past several years, died at 2 p.m. at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, according to Toni House, Supreme Court spokeswoman. He was 84.

"He was a giant in the quest for human rights and equal opportunity in the whole history of our country," President Clinton said of the Baltimore native. "Every American should be grateful for the contributions he made as an advocate and as a justice of the United States Supreme Court."

Justice Marshall was to have appeared at the Clinton inaugural ceremony Wednesday to swear in Al Gore as vice president. But Justice Marshall was hospitalized, and the duty went instead to Justice Byron White.

Yesterday, Justice Marshall was characterized as a towering figure in the nation's history, not simply for his 24 years on the Supreme Court, but for the period before when he effected the legal strategies that ended discrimination in the country.

"The question looms in my mind," said Parren J. Mitchell, a civil rights leader and former congressman, "where would we be as a race today if there had been no Thurgood Marshall?"

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Mr. Mitchell's successor representing the Baltimore area's 7th District, said that Justice Marshall "rewrote the dreams of young black people everywhere."

But Justice Marshall's contributions transcended race, said A. Leon Higginbotham, chief judge emeritus of the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals: "For if he had not won the Brown case [in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" school systems were unconstitutional], the door of equal opportunity would have been more tightly closed also to women, other minorities and the poor."

Lawrence Tribe, constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard Law School, called Justice Marshall simply "the greatest lawyer in the 20th century."

Civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson said, "For most of us who grew up under segregation, we have never known a day without Thurgood Marshall hovering over us to protect us."

Justice Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall on the bench in 1991, said: "He was a great lawyer, a great jurist and a great man, and the country is better for his having lived."

Despite his failing health, Justice Marshall remained active in judicial matters until a few months ago.

In October, due to a viral infection, he canceled a trip to Baltimore, where he had volunteered to serve on a three-judge appellate panel hearing some 20 cases.

The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, called Justice Marshall, an "indispensable linchpin" in the civil rights movement.

"Baltimore has a particular reason to be proud," he said, "that two of the giants of the movement were from here, Clarence Mitchell [Parren Mitchell's deceased older brother and for many years the NAACP's influential Washington lobbyist] in the legislative field and Thurgood Marshall in the legal field. Whatever else we say, without the work they did, we would be living in a segregated world."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer echoed the thought. "As Marylanders, we can be proud to call Thurgood Marshall as one of our own," the governor said. "We will miss his wisdom, determination and courage."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called Justice Marshall "an inspiration to me since I first entered school."

Enolia McMillan, a Marshall contemporary who was the longtime president of the local chapter of the NAACP as well as the national president for six years, paid homage to Thurgood Marshall's intellect and his courage.

Despite his achievements, she said, Justice Marshall was never one to put on airs.

"He was sociable, he was easy-going," said Mrs. McMillan. "There was nothing stiff about him. He was what they used to call 'regular.' "

Family fostered excellence

Born in Baltimore July 2, 1908 -- the same year that race riots in Illinois sparked the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- young Thurgood was raised in a family that fostered excellence in the face of entrenched racial prejudice.

After graduating with honors from Washington's Howard University Law School in 1933, he went on to devote his legal and judicial career to alleviating the wrongs of three centuries of discrimination against blacks.

Twenty-four of those years were spent as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, where he devotedly pursued the goal of equal justice for the poor, the forgotten and the powerless citizens of the United States.

Then, nearing the age of 83 in June 1991, he announced he would retire from the court. He cited his "advancing age and medical condition," which made it impossible for him to meet "the strenuous demands of court work."

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