Humble tributes to Mr. Marshall refresh capital

DAN RODRICKS

January 28, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

WASHINGTON -- She stepped slowly but heartily up the stairs, up through the cold shadows of white marble columns, past the huge bronze doors and into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. There the coffered ceiling towered above her and Evelyn Edwards seemed, like everyone else, a little lost in the mighty splendor of the place.

But now Mrs. Edwards walked toward the flag-draped casket of Thurgood Marshall and, just then, she remembered a schoolhouse.

She remembered a poor little place -- "Nothing you ever heard of, not even on the map" -- called Charlotte Court House, Va. Years ago, Evelyn Edwards attended the school, and the school, of course, was full of black children -- only black children.

"Oh, yes," Mrs. Edwards said, acknowledging the segregation that marked her generation. "Oh, yes. We only went to the 11th grade, too. I remember our class trip. They took us to see where the white children went to school."

Those were the days when "separate but equal" was the lie of the land, the days before Thurgood Marshall rose up to the fight.

And so Evelyn Edwards, who lived to see the day when "separate but equal" would no longer be tolerated, came to the Great Hall yesterday to pay last respects for the man who fought the battle.

When she recalled the once-segregated schools in Charlotte Court House, she told one of the great stories of the century. That was her tribute to Thurgood Marshall. Evelyn Edwards' simple testament -- like all others heard, in bits and pieces, during the 90-minute walk to the Great Hall -- brought to this ostentatious temple of justice the kind of humble sentiment that refreshes the nation's capital and all its institutions. It reaffirms their reason for existence.

"I came to Washington in 1954," Mrs. Edwards said. "That's when I first started following Thurgood Marshall."

By then, of course, he had fought and won many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court he later joined.

One of the winning cases was in 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark decision that ended "separate but equal" school systems, like the one back in Charlotte Court House.

"I followed him right through till the day he died," Mrs. Edwards said. "He left a great legacy for us."

"He could have been a rich man, probably could have had a lucrative law practice," said Gary Tyler, who attended a freshly integrated D.C. school in the mid-1960s. "But he dedicated himself to the cause instead. He showed incredible bravery and self-sacrifice when he was young."

"We're all a product of what he suffered for," said Donald Wilson, who came down from Baltimore.

"I'm here because of all the changes that came about because of Thurgood Marshall," said Ruth Boynton, who grew up in Baltimore. "He did for the African-American people the way Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy did. He's up there with them. He made more things possible for me and my brother, more opportunity."

Thurgood Marshall had thousands, probably millions of friends he never knew -- out there, living their lives, struggling up through poverty and segregation and the fundamental evils that kept American society from moving forward.

Thurgood Marshall was their champion, and so the sidewalks around the Supreme Court were full yesterday -- men and women, black and white and Asian and Hispanic. You could count three, maybe four generations -- Evelyn Edwards' generation, the one that lived through segregation; Gary Tyler's and Ruth Boynton's, the one that lived through integration; and the generation that knows of these things only from history books.

"I wrote a report on him for Black History Month in 5th grade," said David Lott, 12 years old and a student at White Oak Middle School in Montgomery County. He came to the viewing with his brother, Joseph, 11, and his mother.

"This was the most important thing I could do today, bring my boys here," said Juanita Tamayo Lott.

"Thurgood Marshall, by word and deed, was the embodiment of the Constitution. He served under it and practiced it in a way that ensured that everyone would be included and protected by it.

"His work made it possible for my boys to have the opportunities they have today."

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