A tribute to Marshall from a fellow West Baltimorean

Gregory P. Kane

January 29, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

THIS is one West Baltimore boy's farewell tribute to another.

When Thurgood Marshall -- who was born on Division Street, just a few blocks from Provident Hospital, where I was born -- died Sunday, I expected the encomiums. Justice Marshall had had an illustrious career as a civil rights lawyer and judge. He did, after all, win 29 of the 33 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

Some were landmarks: Smith vs. Allwright, which invalidated white-only primary elections; Morgan vs. Virginia, which banned

segregation on vehicles in interstate commerce; and, of course, Brown vs. Board of Education, which struck down segregation in education.

Even the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. was a Thurgood Marshall victory. The boycott ended when Marshall argued Owen vs. Members of the Public Service Commission, and the Supreme Court -- years before Marshall sat on it -- ruled that segregation on Montgomery buses was unconstitutional.

When the edifice of Jim Crow crumbled under a torrent of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, it collapsed because Marshall and a cadre of NAACP lawyers had been swinging axes at it for decades.

But I remember Justice Marshall for two other reasons. The first is his strong advocacy for the underdog, Integrated education, while an admirable goal, was not the reason Thurgood Marshall became 'the greatest lawyer of the 20th century.'

even after he attained his position on the Supreme Court.

He dissented, for example, from a 1981 high court ruling that required physicians to notify parents or guardians of minors seeking abortions. Marshall noted, quite correctly, that in some instances minors need protection from "dictatorial or possibly abusive parents." He remained a staunch opponent of capital punishment throughout his judicial career. One biographer noted Marshall's distaste for capital punishment may have resulted from his saving of an innocent black man from a lynching in 1930s Indiana. Another cited his frustration at having failed to save a former classmate from execution.

But most agree that Marshall's basic objection was that capital punishment was cruel and unusual punishment. If killing a person doesn't constitute cruelty, Marshall reasoned, what does?

Such a view, along with the late justice's insistence that everyone -- even criminals -- has an absolute right to trial by jury, constitutional protection from search and seizure and self-incrimination and the right to an attorney made him anathema in today's hang-'em-high atmosphere. Someone with Marshall's integrity and commitment to principles -- no matter how unpopular -- is sure to be missed.

But what struck me about Thurgood Marshall was not his record as justice and lawyer, but the irony of his life. Here was a champion of civil rights who was also the product of the segregated system he hoped to vanquish. He attended a segregated elementary school in Baltimore. He went to all-black Douglass High School. He did his undergraduate work at all-black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

After the blundering University of Maryland Law School rejected his application in 1930, he attended the predominantly black law school at Howard University, where he was taught by a black vice dean named Charles Houston.

Houston's advice to the young Marshall is worth repeating to black students at all academic levels today. Houston, Marshall wrote, "would drive home to us that we would be competing not only with white lawyers but really well-trained white lawyers, so there just wasn't any point in crying in our beer about being Negroes. . . What Charlie beat into our heads was excellence. 'When you get in a courtroom,' [he'd tell us], 'you can't just say, "Please, Mr. Court, have mercy on me because I'm a Negro." You are in competition with a well-trained white lawyer, and you better be at least as good as he is; and if you expect to win, you better be better. If I give you five cases to read overnight, you better read eight. And when I say eight, you read 10. You go that step further, and you might make it.' "

Integrated education, while an admirable goal, was not the reason Thurgood Marshall became "the greatest lawyer of the 20th century."

Hard work and a commitment to excellence made him successful.

Neighborhoods like the one where Marshall grew up have been written off by much of America. And people who live on Division Street in 1993 may not place as much value on education as Thurgood Marshall did decades ago. But heeding the words of his law school mentor is their hope for escape.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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