SUPREME COURT JUSTICE 1908 – 1993

Because he was the most feared black man in the South

By the time Thurgood Marshall was nominated to be a Supreme Court justice in 1967, few lawyers in history had argued – and won-more cases before the nation’s highest court.  He racked up 29 wins (against just three losses), including his most famous victory, Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark decision that forced public schools to desegregate.

               Marshall is arguably the most pivotal figure in the destruction of Jim Crow, and the most consequential lawyer of the 20th century.  While other civil rights leaders organized strategically vital sit-ins, marches and boycotts, marshall attacked inequality and racism where America had legally sanctioned it.  As the NAACP’s lead attorney and first director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he traveled the South filing briefs in local courthouses, representing poor black defendants in criminal cases, doing battle against racist white juries and judges, and establishing grounds for appeals to higher courts.

            Marshall traveled 50,000 miles a year, often alone in some of the nation’s most dangerous cities and towns.  He stayed in the homes of appreciative black folks who took elaborate steps to keep him safe and a step ahead of marauding Klansmen.  His courage was remarkable.  He managed to maintain his gravitas and fortitude amid daily death threats sipping bourbon and telling stories.

            He feared no one-not his colleagues on the Supreme Court, whom he occasionally pricked during the 24 years there, not even the national reverence for the Constitution, which eh labeled “defective from the stat” on the occasion of its bicentennial.  He took shots at Malcolm X and Clarence Thomas alike.

            It was fitting that he was called Mr. Civil Rights. Gilbert King, in his book, Devil in the Grove, notes the reverence for Marshall among blacks who saw him get case after case overturned by the Supreme Court.

          No wonder that across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruins of mob-torched homes, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope:

            “Thurgood’s coming.” – Kevin Merida

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