In his last years on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was old, tired and "coming apart," as he put it. Support for civil rights seemed to be coming apart too, as his fellow liberals retired and were replaced by Reagan-era conservatives.
But Marshall had been a fighter all of his life, and he was not about to give up. When a new crop of young law clerks arrived each year, the gruff, old justice would lean forward to confide in them. "If I die," he said ominously, "prop me up and keep voting!"
Marshall was not only the courtroom leader of the civil rights movement and the first African American to ascend to the high court, but he was also a great storyteller.
His aim was not humor, although many of his tales came with a hilarious punch line.
Marshall used his stories — and his sly wit — to tell the other justices about a life they could not have experienced.
In "Thurgood," actor Laurence Fishburne brings to the stage the old warrior for racial justice, and in a 90-minute performance, he re-creates the authentic Marshall through his words and stories. "Thurgood" runs through Aug. 8 at the Geffen Playhouse.
His is a powerful story, and it is told as the old justice reflects back on his life. Marshall had grown up in Baltimore when racial segregation was the law. In his first job as delivery boy for a clothing store, he was thrown off a trolley car, allegedly for brushing against a white woman. Young Marshall, and the fine hats he was carrying, ended up on the ground.
He also recalled traveling through small towns of the South as a young lawyer. He represented black defendants before all-white juries. At times, his life was in danger, and at the trial's end, Marshall admitted he took the first train out of town. The real heroes, he said, were those who stayed behind. And of course, there is a story of Marshall's long courtroom fight against racial segregation. This apartheid system rested on the doctrine of "separate but equal," the Supreme Court's notion that separate public facilities for whites and blacks were legal under the Constitution so long as they were equal in quality.
Everyone with eyes, ears and a sense of history knew this 19th century doctrine was a fraud. Marshall's task was to persuade the Supreme Court of the 1950s to admit its mistake. He represented Harry Briggs, a garage mechanic from South Carolina, who sued on behalf of his son, who had to walk five miles to a dilapidated school for black children. Separate schools for black and white children were not equal, he argued in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, and they never would be. Marshall won that fight and forever changed the nation.
The play sold out for its recent four-week run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and it drew President Obama and his wife for a Friday-night performance. The opening-night audience included three members of the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Roberts said he was impressed at how Fishburne had captured Marshall in his look and manner and how the play, written by George Stevens Jr., accurately told of his life and his career.
"The voice, the way he held himself. It was a very faithful portrayal," Roberts said. "And he was such an engaging storyteller." Roberts had been a clerk at the court in 1979 and also argued several cases before Marshall. In May, President Obama chose one of Marshall's former clerks, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, to join the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she will be the first solicitor general to go to the court — since Thurgood Marshall.
Though Fishburne is alone on the stage, he brings forth a cast of fascinating characters who crossed paths with Marshall. They include poet Langston Hughes, who was a college classmate; Martin Luther King Jr., who, Marshall said, always seemed to be going to jail; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was not enthused about integrating the Army; California Gov. Earl Warren, who became the chief justice in the midst of Marshall's greatest case; and President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed Marshall to the court.
But Marshall admired no one more than Charles Hamilton Houston, the dean of Howard University Law School and the first general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. When Marshall was turned away by the segregated University of Maryland Law School, he took the trolley to Washington and enrolled at Howard. Hamilton Houston became his mentor.
"The law is a weapon," Houston taught, "if you know how to use it." It was a lesson Marshall never forgot.
David G. Savage has covered the Supreme Court for The Times since 1986, including the last five years of Justice Thurgood Marshall's tenure.