One Supreme Day

The Baltimore Sun

Forty years ago today, when African-Americans were referred to as "Negro" in newsprint and "black" or "colored" in conversation, a civil-rights champion from Baltimore was sworn in as the first nonwhite justice on the highest court in the land.

"Thurgood Marshall, the first Negro to serve on the Supreme Court, took his seat today as the court convened for a new term," reported a front-page Associated Press story in The Evening Sun and other newspapers across the country. The moment was a key one in the nation's civil-rights timeline, alongside such events as Rosa Parks' defiance on a transit bus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.

As the South still struggled with its Jim Crow past, and the nation as a whole grappled with racial, class and ideological strife, Marshall joined the court where he had won the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case that ended segregation in public schools.

"I remember people calling me up that day just to say that this great thing had happened," said Roger Wilkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who served as an intern under Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Marshall's eldest son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., now a 51-year-old attorney in Washington, has hazy memories about that whirlwind day as an 11-year-old. He and his 9-year-old brother John missed class at Georgetown Day School for the swearing-in ceremony.

Marshall's wife, Cecilia, known as Cissy, wore a green suit with a leopard collar, and was photographed helping Marshall slip into his judicial robe just before the ceremony. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had announced the appointment in July, was in attendance, as were Marshall's brother Aubrey of Wilmington, Del., and Cecilia's sister Sally Acoba from Honolulu.

When on Oct. 2, 1967, Marshall took the judicial oath, as do all U.S. justices and judges, it was his second swearing-in ceremony. A month earlier, on Sept. 1, he took the constitutional oath, an affirmation to support and defend the Constitution. That was two days after his Senate confirmation.

Marshall would spend the next 24 years on the court, authoring opinions that reflected his liberal voice and vote on not only civil- rights issues but on matters of individual rights and criminal procedure. He retired from the court in 1991, two years before his death at 84.

Those who knew him speak of his unyielding stance for what he believed to be justice, his desire to cut to the human aspect of a case, his knack for storytelling and his sometimes cantankerous temperament.

The following is an oral history from people who remember his swearing-in 40 years ago and the events surrounding it:

"One of my mother's sisters, my Aunt Sally, had come in from Hawaii for all the events to be with us. We had a nice, quiet breakfast and went up to the court. And we knew it was going to be a long day; my parents had explained to us that it would be a series of events before and after.

"You're popping in one gate and meeting all these different people, and then you get whisked around. I remember marveling at the fact that we were there but not having a complete sense of where. ... And then the next thing you know, you're popping through a big door and it's the Oval Office."

- Thurgood Marshall Jr., 51, a Washington attorney and the eldest of Marshall's two sons

"I remember having dinner with him [the night of the ceremony]. We were pretty close. He was born in Baltimore in a house next to where my mother lived. I visited his family and we celebrated, and the next day a few of us went to the court to watch him for the first time. We were very proud of him. It was a big event."

- William T. Coleman Jr., 87, a former U.S. secretary of transportation and a Washington attorney who worked with Marshall on several civil-rights cases

"I saw him at the Justice Department the day after he was sworn in. Even though I was 35 years old at the time, I could never call him 'Thurgood' and I didn't call him 'Mr.' Since he had been judge on the 2nd Circuit, I used to call him 'Judge.' But the day after he was sworn in, I said, 'Hello, Judge Justice.' And he said, 'I didn't know you stuttered.' He looked the same. There was no giggliness about him. Probably the only time he ever got halfway giggly was in the courtroom when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down. He acted giggly for about 14 seconds, and then he went back to his old, grumpy self."

- Roger Wilkins, 75, a former intern for Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, former U.S. assistant attorney general and current history professor at George Mason University

"A few days after he was sworn in, he called me. He said he enjoyed a story I wrote about him and he invited me up to [Capitol] Hill. We had dinner and drinks. It was just small talk. He wasn't much for talking about himself. It was like he was reaching over to old friends as he headed into the cocoon of the court."

- Joseph E. Mohbat, 69, who as a Washington bureau reporter for the Associated Press wrote an analysis about Marshall's swearing-in. Currently, he is a lawyer for the city of New York

"At the last minute, before he named Thurgood, President Johnson started to think of naming William Hastie [the first African-American federal judge]. Hastie was a very good man, but I took the position that if he was going to put a black on the Supreme Court, the one and only black who should be put on the court was Thurgood. I told him, 'Thurgood is a hero of all blacks,' and I don't think many blacks would have known Judge Hastie."

- Nicholas Katzenbach, 85, U.S. attorney general during the Johnson administration

"He loved to talk about the day when President Johnson appointed him to the court. He said that Johnson called him over to the White House. And, this was way before 9/11. [Back then], they had public tours, so he went over and got into the public-tour line to get in. One of Johnson's aides pulled him out of the line and took him in to see Johnson, who was watching ticker-tape news of the Vietnam War.

"Then he turned and said, 'Thurgood, I'm putting you on the Supreme Court. We're going to go out and have a press conference.' And Thurgood said, 'Don't you think we should tell Cissy [Marshall's wife]?' And Johnson said, 'Of course,' and turned to one of his aides and said, 'Get Cissy on the phone.' And he said, 'Cissy, this is Lyndon. I'm putting your husband on the Supreme Court.' And then they went out and had the press conference."

- Stephen A. Saltzburg, 62, a law clerk for Marshall from 1971-1972 and currently a law professor at George Washington University

"I was his deputy the entire time he served as solicitor general. We had a very informal working relationship, very friendly, and yet he never indicated that someday he thought he might be nominated to the Supreme Court. When it happened, he expressed a great sense of satisfaction and pride."

- Ralph Spritzer, 90, former first assistant to Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall (1965-1967) and currently a law professor at Arizona State University

"Would you please send me your autograph so I can add it to my collection of Supreme Court justices?"

- From an Oct. 3, 1967, letter from Paul K. Carr of Rockville to Marshall that is among thousands of personal documents that Marshall donated to the Library of Congress. A second letter from Carr requesting an autograph is dated Oct. 28, 1967.

Carr, 73, who now lives in Lewes, Del., finally got Marshall's autograph three years later, when the then-junior high school counselor took a group of students to the Supreme Court.

"He approached our group ... he lit up a cigarette, and the first thing he told the kids was, 'Don't pay attention to all those gingerbread stories [fairy tales] because that has nothing to do with what's going on.' He wasn't pompous at all."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Thurgood Marshall

Born: July 2, 1908 in Baltimore

Died: Jan. 24, 1993 at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center; he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Education: Graduated cum laude from Lincoln University (Pa.) in 1930. Graduated magna cum laude from Howard University Law School in 1933.

Work: In 1936, named special counsel in New York by the NAACP. Won the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 that demolished legal bases for segregation in the United States. Appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1961, and wrote more than 100 majority decisions -- none of which were overturned by the Supreme Court. Appointed U.S. solicitor general in 1965. Became first African-American elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Retired from the Supreme Court in 1991.

Personal: Originally, he was named Thoroughgood, but shortened it. Married his first wife, Vivian Burey, just before graduating from Lincoln. She died of cancer in February 1955. He later married Cecilia (Cissy) Suyat, and they remained together until his death. They had two sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr., a former top aide to President Bill Clinton and currently a Washington-based lawyer, and John Marshall, currently secretary of public safety in Virginia.

[Compiled from staff and wire reports]

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