In life, Thurgood Marshall held too much greatness within him for a small, narrow-minded, southern burg like the Baltimore of his childhood to suppress.
And he may have had too much greatness for a small, narrow-minded, southern burg like today's Baltimore to appreciate fully, now that he has died.
Justice Marshall is this city's noblest native son.
No one born and bred here climbed further or achieved more against greater odds. No one has had a greater impact on our society: As an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall wielded the Constitution like a scythe, mowing down one discriminatory law after another.
As a Supreme Court justice, he fought a fierce holding action as his brethren grew increasingly conservative. History may remember him best for his view of the United States Constitution as a "living, breathing" document.
Yet tributes to Justice Marshall here have been few and far between.
Baltimore has not seen fit to commission any Thurgood Marshall bridges, boulevards, or buildings. No city school carries his name. There is a Marshall Court in Highlandtown and a Marshall Street off of Federal Hill, but workers in the city's planning department doubt either of these thoroughfares was named for the former Supreme Court justice. The City Council has not issued a proclamation honoring Marshall since he retired from the Supreme Court 18 months ago.
Sometimes it seems that Babe Ruth, a beer-guzzling baseball player who hit a lot of home runs and ate a lot of hot dogs in New York, enjoys more local respect and acclaim.
Granted, we have not neglected the man entirely: The Thurgood Marshall Home in the 1600 block of Division St. carries a tasteful brass plaque commemorating Marshall's childhood there. A relative reportedly lives there still. Frederick Douglass High School, Marshall's alma mater, has his bust in the school's foyer.
Also, there is a statue of Marshall at the federal courthouse, although it is carefully tucked away at the rear of the building, where all the doors are locked and there are few pedestrians other than homeless persons. And in 1980, the University of Maryland Law School dedicated its new law library in honor of Marshall.
You can argue that these are fine tributes, and I agree. You can argue, too, that the city is likely to honor him further now that he has died. Perhaps. I suggest, however, that the honors listed above have been polite but not passionate -- like muted applause for a performance that deserves a standing ovation.
I keep remembering the vituperative response last year to my suggestion that we christen the new baseball stadium the Thurgood Marshall Memorial Stadium. Objections to the idea centered on the theme that since Marshall was a black hero, monuments to his memory should be kept tucked away in the black community.
I suspect that deep down, many here don't consider Marshall an American hero but an African-American hero. Perhaps some even feel that Marshall didn't do whites any favors by tearing down segregation and discrimination.
Marshall grew up in Baltimore, one of the most segregated cities on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line. He attended schools that were kept separate and unequal by both law and custom. He tried to make a living as a lawyer in a town whose major law firms were firmly closed to him. His acquaintances maintain that Marshall harbored bitter memories about his life in this small-minded southern town.
I know we'd like to think that we've grown beyond the narrow-mindedness of the past. But I am not so sure. We still teach a segregated history in our schools. We still segregate our heroes. A town known as the Monumental City segregates its monuments, too. Maybe Marshall's bitterness toward Baltimore was not based so much on the past (for what city didn't inspire bitterness back then) but on what Baltimore remains. And maybe we deserve it.
Keep this in mind as you hear the glowing tributes, especially from those who were Marshall's ideological opponents.
As a society, we tend to embrace civil rights leaders most fervently after they are safely dead and gone.