Thurgood Marshall, civil rights lawyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1989.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that school segregation must end, Thurgood Marshall stood with his colleagues on the court steps to pose for photos printed in newspapers around the country. "Thurgood wins" read a headline in the Baltimore Afro-American.

But long before May 17, 1954, Marshall had been using the courts, particularly in Maryland, to fight for equality. Sometimes he lost, but his victories made him famous. And they changed American life.

Born on July 2, 1908, in West Baltimore, Thoroughgood Marshall was named after his great-grandfather but shortened his name to Thurgood in grade school. His mother was an elementary schoolteacher, and his father was a Pullman car porter and a waiter at a whites-only Gibson Island country club.

Marshall attended the Colored High and Training School - for years the only high school for black students in the city. In the early 1920s it was renamed Frederick Douglass High School.

There, from 1921 to 1925, the young Marshall, a cut-up, misbehaved so much that he often was punished by being made to memorize lines of the U.S. Constitution. By the time he graduated, according to biographers, Marshall knew the document by heart.

The forced knowledge would serve him well.

By the time he was 45 years old, Marshall would make history as the lead counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund, when he successfully argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal.

Agent of change

Marshall went on to become a federal appeals court judge, the nation's first black solicitor general and the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But long before Brown vs. Board of Education, Marshall was in the courthouse pushing for change.

"The first three big steps on the road to Brown occurred in Maryland, and Thurgood Marshall was involved in all of them," said Larry S. Gibson, who teaches a course called Racial Discrimination and the Law at the University of Maryland law school.

The first case involved Maryland's law school, which had years before barred an eager Marshall from attending because he was black.

In 1935, along with his mentor, friend and fellow NAACP lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, Marshall won his first major civil rights case - Murray vs. Pearson - successfully integrating the law school that had once kept him out.

In 1936, brimming with the joy of victory, Marshall jumped right in to another Maryland discrimination case, Williams vs. Zimmerman - the second step on the road to Brown.

Margaret Williams, a teen-ager from Cowdensville, an all-black enclave in Baltimore County, had been denied access to Catonsville High School. The denial was routine: Baltimore County refused public education to black students past the sixth grade.

If Margaret, and any other student who wanted schooling past sixth grade, had passed an elementary school exit exam for blacks only, the county would have paid their way to attend high school in the city.

But Margaret twice failed the exam, ending her education at the seventh grade.

Representing Margaret Williams' family, Marshall argued that the county was obligated to either create a black high school in the county or allow black students to attend Catonsville High.

Marshall lost the case, and the subsequent appeal. But the fight would produce a surprising chit that Marshall would cash in later to successfully argue the Brown case.

"In the appeal, according to the NAACP, there was a line where the court pointed out that separate was never going to be really equal," Gibson said. "That gave kind of an indication of where the [future] cases and strategies should go. The case showed Marshall and Houston that the way to go was to thoroughly document the impact and the consequences of separation - which, of course, became an important part of the Brown decision some 18 years later."

The Williams case also produced another unexpected victory.

"Because of what he did," said Louis S. Diggs, a Baltimore County historian, "in 1937, when the appeal to the state went through, Baltimore County must have seen the handwriting on the wall." Two years later, the county system arranged for the high school curriculum to be taught at three black elementary schools to black students - in effect, creating high schools for county black students.

But discrimination didn't end there.

"That was just a stopgap measure," said John McGrain, also a Baltimore County historian. "They stuck with segregation even after that."

By that time, Margaret Williams' family had paid for her to go to a private school, her nephew Barry Williams, Baltimore County's director of employment and training, said. Margaret Williams, now 83, became a nurse and lives in Baltimore County.

Hero and celebrity

The case helped make Marshall a hero and celebrity in Baltimore.

Local black newspaper articles personally celebrated his courtroom victories. "He brought us the Constitution as a document," one official of the NAACP said, "like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments."

The third steppingstone to Brown also was a local case. At the time, black teachers in county schools were paid about half of what white teachers earned, historians said. In 1939, Marshall argued for the equalization of pay in Anne Arundel County on behalf of a black teacher there.

"This was the first successful teacher-pay case in the nation," Gibson said. "The Maryland precedent was followed by successful teacher-pay cases in 14 states."

All three cases dealt blows to the Plessy vs. Ferguson argument of separate but equal, and established the NAACP as a formidable national civil rights organization.

The cases also set the stage for what would become Marshall's lifelong passion - equalizing educational opportunities.

His fight would make him famous internationally, the source of great hometown pride. But Marshall appears to have harbored no real love for Baltimore.

Except for a few memorable occasions - such as when the city honored him by erecting a bronze 8-foot-tall statue outside the federal courthouse - Marshall seems to have seldom returned to his hometown.

In 1977, a Sun reporter interviewed Marshall when he came to Baltimore to pose for the statue.

"I was born at McMechen [Street] near Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the slaughterhouse," Marshall said. His family lived in New York from the time he was about a year old until he was 7. Then the family moved back to Baltimore and lived at 1632 Division St.

The sting of segregation tinged Marshall's memories of Baltimore.

Marshall said that when he was a teen-ager, he was arrested after he got into a fight with a white man. He said he was riding on a trolley carrying a stack of boxes for a merchant. The white man grabbed him and said, "Don't push in front of a white person." The white man wasn't arrested, and Marshall was released without being charged after the merchant went to the police station and spoke up for him, he said.

Though Baltimore was not one of Marshall's favorite places, Diggs points out that it was where Marshall "cut his teeth" as a lawyer.

In stark opposition to his zeal for fighting for human rights, however, Marshall as a youth is said to have "worn life like a loose garment," Gibson said.

He was a prankster, who refused to take himself seriously, and often - in his younger days - disobeyed authority. At Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Marshall skipped studying and played pinochle and poker. He was thrown out of college twice for fraternity pranks, according to a Washington Post article by Juan Williams. Also, Marshall might have become a dentist if he had been able to behave in biology class.

But according to published biographies, while at Lincoln University, Marshall antagonized his biology teacher so much that the teacher flunked him, serendipitously forcing Marshall to find another career. He would graduate from Lincoln with honors.

'Driven ... ornery'

Marshall became even more serious while at Howard, where he came under the tutelage of the law school's vice dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. The men shared an unshakeable vision of a desegregated American society.

But while Houston was neat, orderly and polite, " Thurgood Marshall was boisterous, paid minimal attention to clothing and cussed a lot," said the University of Maryland's Gibson. "He was a chain smoker, and he could hold his liquor."

Columnist Carl Rowan once described Marshall as "driven, sometimes compassionate, but often ornery; hardworking, hard-cussing and sometimes hard-drinking; hard-to-get-along with under pressure, self-effacing and graceful in triumph."

A 1967 Time magazine article said that Marshall was "a gregarious storyteller with a dry wit and a healthy thirst for bourbon and water." The article went on to say that Marshall was "equally comfortable drawling earthy tales in a self-mocking chitlins-and-cornpone Negro dialect or arguing law in meticulously scholarly tones."

But by the end of his historic term on the Supreme Court - as the first black person appointed to the nation's highest court - Marshall seemed to have lost most of his dry wit and jokester traits, and had become even more of a curmudgeon, historians say.

Frustrating end

"He was very frustrated by the way the court was going," said Lisa A. Crooms, a professor of constitutional law at Howard University's law school.

The Supreme Court was disappointing the aging Marshall at every turn, seemingly going backward on the road to racial equality, by opposing such programs as affirmative action and race-based "set-asides" in business contracts.

"By the time he left [the Supreme Court], we had some inkling that [President George H.W.] Bush was going to nominate Clarence Thomas in his place," Crooms said. "And I remember, there was Marshall, in his white orthopedic socks, and the cane, and he was so through."

With his disappointment growing, coupled with failing health, Marshall retired from the nation's high court in 1991. When Marshall died of heart failure in 1993 in Bethesda, politicians, activists and great legal minds across the country proclaimed him the greatest civil rights and constitutional lawyer of the 20th century.

But Marshall, a man of humble beginnings, had been more modest in assessing himself.

His famous parting words:

"I guess you could say, 'He did what he could, with what he had.'"

In 2005 the airport was renamed Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Timeline: Thurgood Marshall

July 2, 1908: Born in West Baltimore. Later attends Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary School and Booker T. Washington Junior High.

1921-1925: Attends Colored High and Training School (which became Frederick Douglass High School in 1923).

1929: Marries Vivian Burey.

1930: Graduates cum laude from Lincoln University, in Lincoln, Pa.

1933: Receives law degree from Howard University (graduating magna cum laude); begins a private practice as a lawyer in Baltimore.

1934: Begins to work for Baltimore branch of NAACP.

1935: With mentor and friend Charles Hamilton Houston, wins first major civil rights case - Murray vs. Pearson - desegregating the University of Maryland Law School, which had rejected Marshall on the grounds of race.

1940-1961: Serves as legal director of the NAACP; in 1940, he wins the first of his 29 Supreme Court victories out of 32 he argued. (Chambers vs. Florida).

1954: Wins Brown vs. Board of Education case, the landmark action that ends the legal segregation of schools in America.

Feb. 1955: Vivian Marshall dies.

Dec. 1955: He marries Cecilia A. Suyat; their union produces Marshall's two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John William.

1961: Is nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, by President Kennedy.

1961: Is appointed circuit judge; makes 112 rulings, all of them later upheld by Supreme Court.

1965: Is appointed U.S. Solicitor General by President Johnson; wins 14 of the 19 cases he argues for the government (1965-1967).

1967: Becomes first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

1991: Retires from Supreme Court.

1993: Dies at 84 in Bethesda.

--Tanika White
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Originally published May 16, 2004