It has been over a year since I inducted someone into the Progressive Hall of Fame. It is not something that is done lightly or under the pressure of time constraint. The theme of this man’s life could have been: Don’t just get mad and/or even; do something positive to change the situation.
In anticipation of graduating from Lincoln University a young Thurgood Marshall applied for admission to the University of Maryland’s Law School. He was denied entrance solely based on his race. He went on to Howard University and graduated Law School first in his class. This experience provided the path Marshall walked the rest of his life.
While in private practice in 1934 he began an association with the N.A.A.C.P. taking on cases concerned with access to educational opportunities for African-Americans. By 1940 he helped found and was named Executive Director of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was somewhat autonomous from the “parent” organization.
Although Marshall made many appearances before the Supreme Court, what put him on the national radar screen was his role as the lead attorney in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. In their decision in that matter the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Marshall and overturned the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. That set aside the principle of separate but equal and opened the doors to America’s public schools to all its children regardless of race.
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy named Marshall to the Second District Court of Appeals. In 1965 Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, named Marshall as his Solicitor General. While serving as such he racked up a 14-5 record in front of the Supreme Court. Think of it this way, he basically went from a plaintiff’s attorney to the defense counsel and still had a great winning percentage.
In 1967 President Johnson nominated Marshall to what would be the capsule job of his brilliant legal career, Supreme Court Justice. Marshall took his seat on the bench in October of 1967 and served as an Associate Justice until his retirement in January of 1993. Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the Court.
In one of life’s bitter ironies Clarence Thomas became his successor on the Court. While Thomas also happens to be African-American the similarities end there. Today we enshrine Thurgood Marshall into the Progressive Hall of Fame; on January 27, 2011 we banished Clarence Thomas to Harry’s Hell.
My favorite Thurgood Marshall story has to do with his replacement. One of the reporters in the back row of Marshall’s last press conference was a young Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. This was well before Page earned his two Pulitzer Prizes and became one of America’s most respected journalists. With one of the last questions he asked Marshall for any comments he might have on the man nominated to replace him. In reply Marshall told a brief story that said it all. I am paraphrasing Justice Marshall’s words but it went along the lines of: An old man told me a story once. He said there is no difference between a white snake and a black snake; they both bite.
In 1930 Marshall was transgressed against because of the color of his skin. There was little he could do about it at that moment other than accept it and move on. He dedicated his adult life to seeing that those who followed him had opportunities that were unjustly denied to him – he did something positive about it.
Thurgood Marshall served as an example and inspiration to us all and today he stands in the Progressive Hall of Fame.
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