Marshall: Baltimore's Legal Legend

January 31, 1993|By DENTON L. WATSON Denton Watson is the author of "Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.'s Struggle for Passage of the Civil Rights Laws."

When Thurgood Marshall was special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, people would wait in lines outside the Supreme Court for a chance to hear him argue that the government should protect the constitutional rights of black citizens. In death, thousands lined up at the Supreme Court on Wednesday to pay their last respects to this monument in American history.

"How could we turn anyone away?" said a weary guard, who permitted mourners well into the night to pass by the casket in the court's Great Hall.

Indeed, Mr. Marshall, the son of a Baltimore elementary school teacher and a waiter, who rose to become the first black member of the high court, was a national legend. Some, such as Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard Law School, regarded him as "the greatest lawyer in the 20th century."

To many others, Mr. Marshall's gruff, even raucous, personality made him a folk hero. Even while enduring, both personally and vicariously, the endless scars and humiliations of racism at home in Maryland and elsewhere in the nation, Mr. Marshall enjoyed life to the fullest. In his younger days, he was a rabble-rouser, and he remained always a notable raconteur. Those who knew him, and those who only heard tales of his irreverent antics, were endeared to his brashness.

But, as Mr. Tribe noted, it was his single-minded devotion to using the Constitution and the law to force the nation to respect the civil rights of his people that made him a true legend. Despite his preeminent role in history, Mr. Marshall's contributions, like those of so many other NAACP leaders, have received too little enough attention. Just-published biographies, including Carl T. Rowan's "Dream Makers, Dream Breakers," and two television films provide a fair but insufficient portrait of his giant stature.

A partial reason is that the law, and other activities such as the struggle for the passage of civil rights legislation that was led by Clarence Mitchell Jr. (the late director of the NAACP Washington Bureau), have much less emotional, and thus popular, appeal than demonstrations in the South. Yet, there can be no doubt about Mr. Marshall's spearhead role in ending state-imposed racial segregation.

Born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, the second child of William Canfield Marshall and Norma A. Marshall, he was named Thoroughgood after his great-grandfather, a very independent-minded slave. While he was in grammar school on Division Street, his parents shortened his name to Thurgood to make it easier to spell.

He grew up on stately Druid Hill Avenue, where the upper-crust blacks lived, and also attended the old Carey Street Elementary School and the old colored Douglass High School on Calhoun and Baker Streets.

Young Thurgood's parents instilled in him and in his older brother, Aubrey, a fierce racial pride and a determination to excel learning despite segregation. "If anyone calls you a nigger, you not only got my permission to fight him, but you got my orders to fight him," the elder Marshall lectured.

But it was his high school principal who helped to steer him in the direction of studying law. Whenever Thurgood misbehaved in school, the principal ordered him down to the boiler room to study paragraphs of the Constitution. He had to do that so many times he learned the entire Constitution by heart.

Barred because of his race from attending the University of Maryland, he went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where, among other things, he developed a reputation as a playboy. But Lincoln's high academic quality had earned it the reputation as "the black Princeton." The institution, furthermore, was the favorite of students from colonial territories, such as Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became president of Nigeria. Mr. Marshall benefited from the atmosphere of high-level scholarsjip and the competitive spirit that characterized Lincoln.

Economic survival, though, was a struggle, even for a nominally middle-class family like the Marshalls. So, during the summers, he worked as a waiter at the Gibson Island Club, where his father was head steward.

NTC His subsequent years at Howard University Law School would determine his career as the nation's leading civil rights lawyer and an irascible jurist who brooked no patience with those who sought to preserve America's harmful racial practices through legal subterfuges or to deny others respect for their humanity.

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