One Supreme Day

Recalling the swearing-in of Thurgood Marshall 40 years ago that broke the color line on the highest court in the land

October 02, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

Forty years ago today, when African-Americans were referred to as "Negro" in newsprint and "black" or "colored" in conversation, a civil-rights champion from Baltimore was sworn in as the first nonwhite justice on the highest court in the land.

"Thurgood Marshall, the first Negro to serve on the Supreme Court, took his seat today as the court convened for a new term," reported a front-page Associated Press story in The Evening Sun and other newspapers across the country. The moment was a key one in the nation's civil-rights timeline, alongside such events as Rosa Parks' defiance on a transit bus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.

As the South still struggled with its Jim Crow past, and the nation as a whole grappled with racial, class and ideological strife, Marshall joined the court where he had won the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case that ended segregation in public schools.

"I remember people calling me up that day just to say that this great thing had happened," said Roger Wilkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who served as an intern under Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Marshall's eldest son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., now a 51-year-old attorney in Washington, has hazy memories about that whirlwind day as an 11-year-old. He and his 9-year-old brother John missed class at Georgetown Day School for the swearing-in ceremony.

Marshall's wife, Cecilia, known as Cissy, wore a green suit with a leopard collar, and was photographed helping Marshall slip into his judicial robe just before the ceremony. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had announced the appointment in July, was in attendance, as were Marshall's brother Aubrey of Wilmington, Del., and Cecilia's sister Sally Acoba from Honolulu.

When on Oct. 2, 1967, Marshall took the judicial oath, as do all U.S. justices and judges, it was his second swearing-in ceremony. A month earlier, on Sept. 1, he took the constitutional oath, an affirmation to support and defend the Constitution. That was two days after his Senate confirmation.

Marshall would spend the next 24 years on the court, authoring opinions that reflected his liberal voice and vote on not only civil- rights issues but on matters of individual rights and criminal procedure. He retired from the court in 1991, two years before his death at 84.

Those who knew him speak of his unyielding stance for what he believed to be justice, his desire to cut to the human aspect of a case, his knack for storytelling and his sometimes cantankerous temperament.

The following is an oral history from people who remember his swearing-in 40 years ago and the events surrounding it:

"One of my mother's sisters, my Aunt Sally, had come in from Hawaii for all the events to be with us. We had a nice, quiet breakfast and went up to the court. And we knew it was going to be a long day; my parents had explained to us that it would be a series of events before and after.

"You're popping in one gate and meeting all these different people, and then you get whisked around. I remember marveling at the fact that we were there but not having a complete sense of where. ... And then the next thing you know, you're popping through a big door and it's the Oval Office."

- Thurgood Marshall Jr., 51, a Washington attorney and the eldest of Marshall's two sons

"I remember having dinner with him [the night of the ceremony]. We were pretty close. He was born in Baltimore in a house next to where my mother lived. I visited his family and we celebrated, and the next day a few of us went to the court to watch him for the first time. We were very proud of him. It was a big event."

- William T. Coleman Jr., 87, a former U.S. secretary of transportation and a Washington attorney who worked with Marshall on several civil-rights cases

"I saw him at the Justice Department the day after he was sworn in. Even though I was 35 years old at the time, I could never call him `Thurgood' and I didn't call him `Mr.' Since he had been judge on the 2nd Circuit, I used to call him `Judge.' But the day after he was sworn in, I said, `Hello, Judge Justice.' And he said, `I didn't know you stuttered.' He looked the same. There was no giggliness about him. Probably the only time he ever got halfway giggly was in the courtroom when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down. He acted giggly for about 14 seconds, and then he went back to his old, grumpy self."

- Roger Wilkins, 75, a former intern for Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, former U.S. assistant attorney general and current history professor at George Mason University

"A few days after he was sworn in, he called me. He said he enjoyed a story I wrote about him and he invited me up to [Capitol] Hill. We had dinner and drinks. It was just small talk. He wasn't much for talking about himself. It was like he was reaching over to old friends as he headed into the cocoon of the court."

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