Thousands stand in line for chance to pay respects to Thurgood Marshall

FAREWELL TO 'A GREAT AMERICAN'

January 28, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For hours and in the thousands they came, quietly but not downcast, to turn the Supreme Court into a "citizen's court" for a day and make themselves a part of the historic journey of Thurgood Marshall.

A Baltimore civil-rights lawyer on her lunch hour, a Washington playwright taking time out from library research on Katharine Hepburn, the grandson of a U.S. vice president, a black retired government worker who had gone to racially segregated schools in the nation's capital -- all were there yesterday, sometimes waiting more than an hour to take a two-minute walk past Justice Marshall's flag-draped coffin in the court's echoing Great Hall.

In a spectacle of public affection like nothing the Supreme Court had ever seen, the crowds marched up the court's majestic marble steps to join in the final tribute to the nation's first black justice, who died Sunday afternoon.

Justice Marshall's public funeral will be today at the National Cathedral, his private burial service tomorrow at Arlington National Cemetery.

The line, usually made up of more blacks than whites, at times stretched around three sides of the court building, four-deep on the sidewalk.

Shivering as the temperature hovered in the low 40s and a strong breeze forced the court's huge plaza flag to yank lustily at its mooring cable, the crowd crept forward as it built up. As the viewers entered the courthouse, through a metal detector, a clicking counter added them up: more than 1,000 an hour.

By evening, with a long line still waiting outside, the counter showed that more than 12,000 had paid their tribute.

At the foot of a new portrait of Justice Marshall, painted by artist Simmie Knox, someone had dropped a copy of Brown vs. Board of Education, the original school desegregation decision, won by Mr. Marshall as a civil-rights lawyer. Across the bottom of the opinion were the handwritten words: "We will always remember."

Stephanie K. Rones fretted that she would not have time to wait before having to hurry back to Baltimore, where she is a courtroom lawyer handling housing rights cases for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But she got into line anyway.

It was a line that started forming at 6:45 a.m., behind Donald Adams. A native Washingtonian, now 60, he said he was there because of what Mr. Marshall had done, "not only for blacks but for the entire country. . . . Because of him, the country is a lot better off, a lot richer."

Mr. Adams graduated from Armstrong High School in 1950 -- four years before Mr. Marshall and his legal team won the landmark school desegregation case. Mr. Adams never knew an integrated school. "My children," he said with evident pride, "were able to go to any school they wanted to."

He and the scores who had assembled by 9:25 a.m. saw a single vehicle, a dark hearse, pull up at the curb, and the flag-draped coffin emerge. Six court police officers carried it into the building, past the nine justices and two retired justices at the top of the steps.

Inside, they placed it on a bier, as the Marshall family and the justices lined up alongside.

One of the youngest justices, David H. Souter, helped ailing retired Justice William J. Brennan Jr., out of his wheelchair, and held his hand throughout as Justice Brennan stood through a brief prayer ceremony.

Behind the coffin, two of Justice Marshall's former law clerks moved into place as vigils -- the first of a shift of law clerks taking turns at that post throughout the viewing.

Within an hour, the public was admitted, following Mr. Adams through the huge brass doors. Behind several hundred people stood Roger Wilkins, a black journalist and now college teacher who has long been a Marshall family friend. He declined an invitation to enter with the family, saying "I'd rather just get in line."

It was a day when few used political pull to get into the courthouse. Hubert Humphrey IV, who carries the name of his famous grandfather -- a vice president and senator -- was far back in the line at midafternoon.

Mr. Humphrey had come partly at the urging of his grandmother, Muriel Humphrey, who "told me to say that I was a representative of the family." Just 23, he was not even born when Justice Marshall joined the Supreme Court in 1967.

Sprinkled throughout the line all day were clusters of schoolchildren, including Benita Tillman's seventh-grade cultural geography class from James Madison Middle School in Upper Marlboro. They had come, she said, "to show our respect to one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century."

In early afternoon, budding playwright Carla Seaquist, who had been reading up on Katharine Hepburn across the street at the Library of Congress, joined the end of the line.

A woman who once made a special pilgrimage to Little Rock, Ark., just to look at Central High School, one of the historic scenes in America's struggle to desegregate, Ms. Seaquist likened herself to Mr. Marshall: "I've been a rabble-rouser from 'way back."

Asked when she first became aware of Justice Marshall, she said: "Thurgood Marshall has just been there forever."

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