CHICAGO — Chicago.--"What do you remember most about Thurgood Marshall?'' I am asked repeatedly as I tour the nation promoting ''Dream Makers,'' my story of his life.
I think first of his withering wit in the courtroom. When a Virginia lawyer argued that black and white children couldn't attend the same schools, Marshall snapped: ''It is interesting to me that the very people who object to sending their white children to school with Negroes are eating food that has been prepared, served and almost put in their mouths by the mothers of those children.''
I think next of the depth of Marshall's dedication to fighting racism. After he graduated from the Howard University Law School (the University of Maryland had refused to admit him), Marshall got a young black man, Donald Murray, to apply to the Maryland law school. The regents held a special meeting and rejected Murray. Young Marshall strode into the office of Maryland's president and demanded that he be allowed to read the minutes of the regents' meeting.
He found in those minutes clear admissions that Murray was rejected for reasons of race only. He won an easy court victory and thus launched a campaign to wipe out Jim Crow in Southern universities.
I remember his incredible bravery. On some visits to Mississippi he had to ride around in a hearse with three bodyguards and 30 rifles in the back. If he had fear, he masked it with humor. On one trip to Louisiana the press met him at the airport to warn him that a rabid racist had put a $10,000 contract on the life of ''the burr-headed nigger.'' ''Why should I fear? I ain't burr-headed!'' snapped Marshall.
I recall his early vision -- his view that state-imposed racial separation stigmatized black children and damaged their hearts and minds irreparably. He put ''stigmatic injury'' in the lexicon of the American judiciary. While some blacks advocated separatism, Marshall never wavered in his belief that any version of ''separate but equal'' would destroy black hopes for justice.
Finally, I remember Marshall for his undying devotion to the rule of law. He knew the value of marches and protests, but it irritated him that so many Americans were unaware that the Montgomery boycott did not get blacks off the backs of buses -- that only a Supreme Court decision ended Jim Crow in travel.
Mr. Justice Marshall used the Constitution as a fragile battering rod to pry open schools and colleges, to make the ballot box a welcome place for all. He never stopped believing that respect for that Constitution and the law would someday make America whole.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.