TODAY marks the anniversary of a major event in the long struggle for civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans.
Exactly 31 years ago, Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court. The event capped Marshall's long career as chief legal counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He had been nominated to the high court by President Lyndon B. Johnson and confirmed by the Senate after extended, difficult hearings.
On the honor roll of great Baltimoreans whose accomplishments have saved, improved or enriched millions of lives -- such men as the Baltimore merchant, Johns Hopkins, who founded one of the world's great hospitals; Enoch Pratt, creator of Baltimore's libraries; Dr. Abel Wolman, a pioneer in water purification; Edgar A. Poe and H.L. Mencken in literature -- no name shines brighter than Thurgood Marshall for making legal history.
Baltimore's history of racial discrimination is well-known. As late as 1947, black students could not enroll at the University of Maryland; it was then that the first black police sergeant was appointed.
In 1948, an interracial tennis match was staged in Druid Hill Park in defiance of Park Board policy and 34 people were arrested.
It was not until 1949 that a black man was permitted to become a licensed plumber.
A Roosevelt ally
Early on, Marshall had strong allies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who said later that it was a time when "the country as a whole was making more progress toward ridding itself of discrimination based on race than in any comparable period since Reconstruction.
"It was a time that saw the end of the legal doctrine of 'separate but equal,' which had ruled for more than 50 years . . . when the barriers of segregation -- legal and extra legal -- began to crumble . . . a time that produced the first civil rights laws in half a century." All of that was mainly the achievement of Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall and his staff lawyers legally challenged the Houston policy of letting only whites vote in primary elections at a time when senators such as John Rankin and even Claude Pepper were declaring that Southern states would never allow any tampering with white supremacy.
Before being named to the high court, Marshall had won 29 out of 32 cases that he had argued before the Supreme Court for the NAACP. They included such legal milestones as: Morgan vs. Virginia, 1946, prohibiting segregation on interstate transportation; Patton vs. Mississippi, 1947, nullifing convictions obtained from juries from which African-Americans had been barred on the basis of race; and Shelley vs. Kraemer, 1948, prohibiting state courts from enforcing racially restrictive convenants.
Now, despite Marshall's lifelong efforts to equalize opportunity for blacks, affirmative action laws are being overturned in some states.
Despite his legal victories in quelling racist violence against black citizens, such incidents still occur.
Despite his victory in the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, which outlawed discrimination in public education, segregation in colleges and universities continues in practice, if not in law.
Despite his opening the door to the middle class for African Americans, they are still excluded from too many corporate boardrooms.
As U.S. solicitor general under Johnson and as a member of the Supreme Court, he was a feisty contrarian who never waivered in his fight to achieve social justice, even when threatened with lynching. Like W.E.B. DuBois, his recommendation for dealing with rabid racists was a "faceful of knuckles."
When old and ailing, Marshall was asked if he planned to retire. He replied, "Hell, no! This is a lifetime appointment, and I intend to serve it. They'll have to carry me out on a stretcher."
Eventually, Marshall retired in 1991, having served for 24 years on the nation's highest court. He died in January 1993 at 84.
A century after the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln freed the bodies of African Americans, Thurgood Marshall began the unfinished business of liberating their latent energy, talent and spirit to be free at last.
Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore writer.
Pub Date: 10/02/98