Marshall is extolled for upholding justice

January 29, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With praise of a kind fit only for history's noblest figures, and with touching remembrances of a "tough, no-nonsense curmudgeon" turned into putty by his grandchildren, America said an uplifting goodbye to Thurgood Marshall yesterday.

President Clinton watched silently from the front row, Vice President Al Gore read from the prophet Amos, and some 4,000 others crowded together on wicker-bottomed chairs at the National Cathedral for the long funeral service that completed the public mourning for the nation's first black Supreme Court justice and the legal champion of the civil rights movement.

The 108-minute ceremony, steeped in the rituals of Christian liturgy, was heavily formal some of the time. But it also was almost comical at other times, as two of Mr. Marshall's law clerks remembered him calling them "knuckleheads."

And it was deeply moving, too, with the rumbling chorus of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which Mr. Marshall thought should be the national anthem, and with the thudding drums and shrieking trumpets of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

It also had a bit of political flavor. With the members of the now-conservative Supreme Court sitting two rows behind the Clintons and the Gores, a former Marshall law clerk, Karen Hastie Williams, lamented the "increasing hostilities to individual rights and liberty" in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. Clinton also was addressed directly by Washington lawyer William T. Coleman Jr. -- the Supreme Court's first black law clerk -- with the message that Mr. Clinton probably would never have been elected president and would never have been able to choose a racially integrated Cabinet if Mr. Marshall had lost some key desegregation cases.

For the most part, the eulogies were celebrations of Mr. Marshall's historic contributions and of his humanity and personal warmth.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recalled the "Equal Justice Under Law" inscription above the Supreme Court's portal, and remarked: "Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall."

Vernon E. Jordan, a Washington lawyer, former civil rights leader and adviser to Mr. Clinton, talked of his own generation of blacks as one that had been transformed by Mr. Marshall in the "way it thought of itself, its place in society and of the law itself." He said it had been Mr. Marshall's mission "to cleanse our Constitution of the filth of repressive discrimination."

Mr. Jordan concluded by symbolically addressing Mr. Marshall: "Your voice is stilled, but your message lives on. You have altered America irrevocably and forever. Farewell, Mr. Civil Rights!"

Federal Circuit Judge Ralph W. Winter Jr., the first law clerk to serve Mr. Marshall, produced laughter several times as he told tales of "TM's" character: his "very well-rehearsed role of curmudgeon," his use of teasing antics to make fun of racism, and his explanation that there was no photo of his law school class at Howard University because they all were "too rebellious" to agree about having it done.

Soprano Ruby Robertson appeared to be singing in tribute to Mr. Marshall's career with these lines from A. Bazel Androzzo: "If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain."

Mr. Gore, in reciting 11 verses from Amos in the Old Testament, spoke with feeling as he intoned: "Let justice roll down like waters."

Mr. Marshall's son, John, a Virginia state trooper who led the Clinton-Gore motorcade to Washington for the inaugural ceremonies, rapidly read a 13-verse passage about the greatness of love from I Corinthians in the New Testament. When Mr. Marshall took the oath as a Supreme Court justice in 1967, he held his hand on a Bible opened to that passage.

The audience was filled with dignitaries of the government and the diplomatic corps and included such celebrated figures as Ethel Kennedy, the widow of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

This morning, in a private ceremony, Mr. Marshall will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Congress has passed a measure renaming the new Judiciary Building near Washington's Union Station for him.

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