WASHINGTON — A tall, thick, aging black man steps out of a limousine and trudges toward the hotel ballroom where he is scheduled to give one of his rare speeches. Black bellhops and maids and doormen freeze in place, pointing. Black waiters and waitresses begin streaming out of the kitchen for a glimpse of him. Elderly black people, some with tears in their eyes, stand on tiptoes to see better and wave.
A white man, awed by the emotional reaction, taps a black man on the arm: "What's goin' on? Who is that guy?"
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 1990 Home Edition View Part E Page 2 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo Credit--A photograph of Thurgood Marshall on Page 1 of View Jan. 14 was taken by Gregory Heisler. A photograph of Cecilia and Thurgood Marshall on Page 8 in the same issue was taken by Simmie Knox.
"That's Thurgood Marshall."
The white man seems confused: "He's one of those Supreme Court judges, right?"
To many, if not most, white Americans, Thurgood Marshall is not a lot more than "one of those Supreme Court judges." They don't doubt that he is an important and honored man in American life. But he is only one of hundreds of equally important, powerful people in the country.
Yet if whites could see Thurgood Marshall more clearly, they might see the most important black man of this century--a man who rose higher than any black person before him and who has had more effect on black lives than any other person, black or white.
Twenty-two years ago, even before Marshall broke the 178-year color barrier on the Supreme Court, Newsweek magazine wrote: "In three decades, he has probably done as much to transform the life of his people as any Negro alive today, including Nobel laureate Martin Luther King."
The accolade was deserved. Marshall built his reputation slowly, in backwater Southern towns, overwhelmed but not overmatched by a twisted white justice wrought by judges and sheriffs who had few second thoughts about beating in black heads.
Often the only hope among blacks in these small communities was expressed in a quiet, angry threat, whispered like code: Thurgood is coming.
"When I think of great American lawyers, I think of Thurgood Marshall, Abe Lincoln and Daniel Webster," says Thomas G. Krattenmaker, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center. "In this century, only Earl Warren approaches Marshall. He is certainly the most important lawyer of the 20th Century."
Marshall is the only black leader in U.S. history who can argue that he defeated segregation where it counts--in court. Devising a legal strategy based on the Constitution, he forced rights to be extended equally to even the poorest, most disadvantaged citizens. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have won his first victory, the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, if Marshall's NAACP legal team had not first won a Supreme Court ruling outlawing bus segregation. And it was Marshall who argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, ending segregation in public schools.
"He is almost an exact contemporary of mine," says Erwin Griswold, a former dean of the Harvard Law School and former solicitor general who is regarded as an expert on the Supreme Court. "I have watched him for all these years. First, he was an extremely resourceful and energetic advocate in the late 1930s and 1940s, trying difficult cases all over the South with great skill and often much courage. He changed America. And then as a judge on the court of appeals and as solicitor general he upheld the best standards of the legal profession. And now he has been on the Supreme Court for 22 years and has had a distinguished record . . . and ranks among the strongest members of the Supreme Court in this century."
Marshall has argued more cases before the court--32--than any justice now sitting. He won 29 of them. Marshall alone among the justices can say he has defended a man charged with murder.
In black America, Marshall has become a doubly potent symbol: the protector fighting for the rights of individuals in a white-majority society still stained with racism, and the personification of black achievement. No black American has ever held a higher government office, and none will until a black person is elected President.
Marshall's thinning silver hair is combed straight back. At 81, his wife and friends complain, he is heavier than ever because he refuses to exercise. He wears two hearing aids, and sometimes his still smooth face is suddenly etched with tears caused by glaucoma that keeps him from driving and forces him to hold papers close to his eyes as he reads. But he reads constantly. His massive desk at the court is covered with papers, letters, law books and pictures.
Save for a 1988 documentary he did with columnist Carl Rowan, Marshall hasn't given any interviews while on the court. As he talks about his extraordinary career, his voice is gruff; he often mumbles or gives brusque answers to questions.
Marshall's life is a reflection of the changing 20th Century. It began in a sharply segregated town of ordinary people--Baltimore--in 1908. "The only thing different between the South and Baltimore was trolley cars," recalls Marshall. "They weren't segregated. Everything else was segregated."