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Thurgood Marshall, 84, Dies; Civil Rights Giant : Supreme Court: First black justice was a leader in the legal battle to end forced segregation in the U.S.


WASHINGTON — Retired Justice Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights giant who as a lawyer won the landmark victories that ended forced segregation in the United States and then became the first black justice of the Supreme Court, died Sunday at the age of 84.

Marshall, who stepped down in 1991 because of failing health, was forced last week to cancel plans to swear in Vice President Al Gore during the inaugural ceremony. He had entered Bethesda Naval Hospital and suffered heart failure at about 2 p.m. EST.

Though best known for his 24 years on the Supreme Court, many legal scholars consider him the most important lawyer of the 20th Century because of his role in ending institutional segregation in the United States.

Growing up in Baltimore, Marshall, the great-grandson of slaves, could not enroll at his local public school, nor could he and his family shop in downtown department stores.

Though a fine student, he also could not enroll in the University of Maryland Law School. Simply because he was black, all those doors were closed to him.

As a legal counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall challenged racism in the courts throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, in the early 1950s, as head of the defense fund, he presented the issue squarely to the U.S. Supreme Court, an all-white, all-male panel that for more than a century had blithely ignored claims of racial injustice.

Could a nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal," Marshall asked, continue to deny basic human rights to some of them solely because of the color of their skin? The answer came on May 17, 1954, in a case known as Brown vs. Board of Education.

By a unanimous vote, the high court reversed itself in the Topeka, Kan., case and ruled that segregation was "inherently unequal" and thereby violated the Constitution. That decision, and the scores of rulings that followed it, changed the face of the nation and gave new opportunity to millions--and not just to black Americans.

The principle of equal treatment under law also led to legal victories for women, members of ethnic minorities and the disabled.

In a tribute to Marshall, President Clinton noted his powerful impact on the nation.

"He was a giant in the quest for human rights and equal opportunity in the whole history of our country," the President said. "Every American should be grateful for the contributions he made as an advocate and as a justice of the United States Supreme Court."

Harvard University law professor Laurence H. Tribe called Marshall "the greatest lawyer in the 20th Century. He was to the law what Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were to social issues."

For his part, Marshall refused to play the role of a great, gray eminence of the law. Instead, he was gruff and often grumpy in his later years. He kept his law clerks amused with wry comments about the issues of the day.

On the day he retired from the high court, he was asked how he would like to be remembered.

"That he did what he could with what he had," the aging justice replied.

The simple directness of that comment was reflected in much of Marshall's legal work. Unlike some of his court brethren who might enjoy parsing the bankruptcy code, Marshall took on the major legal issues of his day and espoused simple, straightforward principles.

On abortion, for example, he insisted that the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy belonged to the woman alone. He tolerated no exceptions.

He was equally unyielding, but less successful, in opposing the death penalty. His many years representing black defendants in Southern courtrooms had convinced him that capital punishment was imbued with racism and was fundamentally unfair.

As a Supreme Court justice, he voted against every death sentence presented to him. By the time of his retirement in 1991, he did so alone.

Marshall joined the court in 1967 at the high water mark of the liberal era under then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. With a solid majority of liberal appointees, the court had insisted on the desegregation of schools and state colleges, expanded the rights of criminal defendants and broadly protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

But just a year later, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency and soon sent four "law-and-order" appointees to the high court. Increasingly thereafter, Marshall found himself as a dissenter on a court that was moving to the right.

Then a heavy smoker who resisted physical exercise at all cost, Marshall in the early 1970s began to suffer heart trouble. In 1971, he checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital for a physical and was surprised to learn that Nixon's aides had sought copies of his medical records.

Amused, Marshall told his doctors that the White House could have the records if he could add a brief note. "Not yet!," it read. He served another 20 years on the nation's highest court.

His seat was filled by Clarence Thomas, a black conservative appointed by President George Bush.

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