Mr. Civil Rights

January 26, 1993

Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore. He grew up on Druid Hill Avenue. He would have gone to law school here, except the only law school was "white." So he went to Howard and returned to open a law office on E. Redwood Street. Soon he sued the state on behalf of a black student who wanted to go to law school here. Mr. Marshall won the case in 1935, and from there it is a straight, if not easily created, legal path to Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the separate but equal doctrine.

That was the most important Supreme Court decision since the Civil War, and Thurgood Marshall, who crafted the case and argued it, deserves more credit for it than any other individual. He never accepted the advice of older civil rights lawyers in the 1930s and 1940s who argued that it would be more realistic to try to force the Southern and Border states to make separate but truly equal schools and other public facilities. They were equal in name only. Even in a relatively enlightened city like Baltimore, blacks were clearly second class citizens.

Thurgood Marshall's first-hand knowledge of this situation motivated and informed his crusade. It also left him with a resentment (to put it mildly) for his old home town that never left him.

After the Maryland Law School case and long before Brown vs. Board, Mr. Marshall became a national figure. Federal Judge Robert L. Carter, who worked with him in that period, recalled recently that "his reputation and popularity among black people grew to such heights that he was probably revered and hero-worshiped as much as Martin Luther King Jr. was in his heyday; the black community affectionately referred to Marshall as 'Mr. Civil Rights.' "

History will surely focus on Mr. Marshall's life as an advocate. He appeared before the Supreme Court 32 times and prevailed 27 times. A majority of his appearances were not as private lawyer representing private clients, but as solicitor general of the United States, representing his government. From that post he went on to the Supreme Court -- the first black ever -- where he distinguished himself in opinions and dissent.

If his personal history and memories made him seem at times a fighter only for blacks' civil rights, in fact it was liberty and equality for all that was his goal. A former law clerk once listed the beneficiaries of his jurisprudence in his opinions: "the poor, prisoners, minors, older people, minority political parties, persons with disabilities, Native Americans, members of religious minorities, immigrants, non-citizens, fathers, women, anyone who might need an abortion, rock music fans, students, people with long hair, residents of Puerto Rico, protesters and members of all racial minorities."

As a private citizen and as a public official, Thurgood Marshall earned that statue of him at the federal courthouse here, and he earned a place in the forefront of the history of his century.

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