Friday 30 August 2013

From Slavery to the Supreme Court

Thurgood Marshall's parents courtesy

The grandson of a Black slave, Thurgood Marshall attended a segregated elementary and high school.  The son of parents who valued education, when he was in trouble, he had to memorize sections of the U.S. Constitution.  The knowledge would serve him well as a lawyer:  he would win 29 out of the 32 cases he argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908.  His parents made a modest living:  his father worked as a railroad porter while his mother was a Kindergarten teacher.  When young Thoroughgood reached Grade 2, he did not like spelling his long name and therefore shortened it to Thurgood.

University of Maryland courtesy

Upon graduating from high school, Thurgood applied to the University of Maryland but was turned down due to his race.  He reluctantly applied to Pennsylvania's Lincoln University where his classmate, the poet Langston Hughes, called him "rough and ready, loud and wrong".  His personality served him well as he became a star debater on campus.  There, Thurgood graduated with honours majoring in American Literature and philosophy.  

Short on money, Mrs. Marshall pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for her son's tuition at Howard University Law School.  Thurgood made her proud, graduating at the top of his class.  The academic still found time to participate in a sit-in at the local movie theatre.

In the meantime, the young law student married Vivien "Buster" Burey in 1929 and they settled in Maryland.  Never forgetting being barred from the University of Maryland, Thurgood helped a young student sue the university for their racist policy in first case, Murray vs. Pearson.  

Thurgood Marshall circa 1936 courtesy

With the success of his early cases, Thurgood was hired by the NAACP in 1936, at which time he and his wife relocated to New York City.  Thurgood worked his fingers to the bone arguing cases during the day and then enjoyed the Harlem cultural life at night.

Mr. Marshall's cases with the NAACP read like a who's who of the Black Civil Rights Movement.  In 1940, Thurgood won Chambers vs. Florida, a case which pitted four Black men who were coereced in a murder confession by corrupt law officials.  In 1947, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the colour barrier in professional baseball, he hired Thurgood to represent the young Black athlete.  In 1954, Mr. Marshall argued Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, paving the way for Black children to attend White schools in America.  In 1956, the lawyer struck down segregation on city busses, a movement sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus a year earlier.  In 1958, Mr. Marshall prepared legal documents securing the safety of the Little Rock Nine as they enrolled at a White High School in Arkansas.  And the list goes on and on.

Brown vs. Board of Education circa 1954 courtesy

In his personal life, things were not going as well.  Thurgood and his wife longed to become parents but Buster suffered several miscarriages.  In 1955 she succumbed to cancer.  Thurgood remarried a year later and with his second wife he had two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John, the former becoming a top aide to President Clinton.

Marshall's wins in the courthouse lead President John F. Kennedy to appoint him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1961.  In the same vein, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, the first Black Supreme Court Justice -- not bad for the grandson of a slave.

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