Advertisement
Obituaries

Cecilia ‘Cissy’ Marshall, former NAACP legal secretary and widow of first Black Supreme Court justice, dies

Cecilia "Cissy" Marshall, pictured in 2005, helped take notes and type briefs as her husband, Thurgood Marshall, prepared for arguments in Brown v. Board of Education case.

WASHINGTON — Cecilia “Cissy” Marshall, the wife of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who worked alongside the civil rights champion at the NAACP, died Tuesday at the age of 94, the Supreme Court announced and was confirmed by her son, Thurgood Marshall Jr.

Ms. Marshall’s husband, born and raised in Baltimore, became the high court’s first Black justice in 1967 following a career as a civil rights lawyer in which he argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation in public schools. He retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 and died in 1993 at the age of 84.

Advertisement

Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat Marshall was born in Hawaii on July 20, 1928. She later moved to New York City and took night classes at Columbia University to become a stenographer. An employment office sent her in 1948 to work at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“The clerk, she saw my dark skin, and she sent me to the national office of the NAACP,” she said in a 2016 interview. “That is the only reason I can think of that she sent me to the NAACP for my first job. And to this day, I thank her, because had it not been for her, I wouldn’t have known anything about a race problem.”

Advertisement

Ms. Marshall, who was of Filipino descent, said that “having been born in the Hawaiian islands we never had that racial problems, and so working with the NAACP opened my eyes.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, right, stands with his family as they watch him take his seat at the court for the first time, Oct. 2, 1967. From left are Marshall's son Thurgood, Jr., 11, wife, Cecilia "Cissy," and son John, 9. Marshall joined the Supreme Court in 1967 as the court's first Black justice.

It was also at the NAACP that she met her future husband. A legal secretary, she worked on a variety of cases and was there for the case of the so-called Groveland Four, the four young Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Florida. She also helped take notes and type briefs as Mr. Marshall prepared for arguments in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which was argued in 1952 and 1953.

In interviews later in life, she recalled the celebration after Brown was decided.

“I don’t know about you fools,” she recalled Mr. Marshall saying at some point during the festivities, “but I’m going back to work. Our work has just begun.”

Mr. Marshall’s first wife, Vivien Burey, died of cancer in 1955. He and Ms. Marshall married later that year. She left the NAACP after they wed.

The Morning Sun

The Morning Sun

Daily

Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.

But the marriage almost didn’t happen, she said, and not because of their 20-year age difference. She said many people still considered her to be “a foreigner,” and she worried about the reaction. “When Thurgood proposed I said, ‘No way,’” she recalled in 2013. She said he insisted: “I’m marrying you. I’m not marrying the country and they’re not marrying me.”

It wasn’t until just before Mr. Marshall joined the Supreme Court that the justices ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws in 16 states barring interracial marriage could not stand.

In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts called Ms. Marshall a “vibrant and engaged member of the Court family” who regularly attended court events. “You wanted to sit next to her at any event,” he wrote. “She had an easy sense of humor that could be — in an appropriate setting, of course — a bit saucy.”

Advertisement

Justice Elena Kagan, who was a law clerk to Mr. Marshall, called Ms. Marshall a “marvelous woman” and wrote: “Every clerk to Justice Marshall received a sort of bonus: the steadfast friendship and support of his wife Cissy.”

In addition to their son Thurgood Jr., Marshall is survived by another son, John W. Marshall, a former Virginia secretary of public safety and former director of the U.S. Marshals Service; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The Supreme Court said funeral arrangements were pending. Mr. Marshall was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington in a section of the cemetery where a number of other former justices were buried.

The New York Times and Washington Post contributed to this article.


Advertisement