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Celebrating Thurgood Marshall

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Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2011 12:00 am

Here on the 20th anniversary of his retirement from the Supreme Court, it is a difficult task to write an original and unrepetitive tribute to Thurgood Marshall. What else remains to be said about the greatest lawyer of the 20th century?

I thought it might be interesting, however, to illustrate Marshall’s impact by looking at his influence on my mentor and hero, Judge Damon Keith.

Damon J. Keith is a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, one rung under the Supreme Court on the Federal Judiciary. Born on the fourth of July in 1922, in Detroit, Michigan, Judge Keith graduated from college just in time to be drafted into WWII in the early ‘40s. He then used the G.I. bill to enroll in law school at Howard University in 1946.

By 1946, Thurgood Marshall was already a legend. He was known as Mr. Civil Rights, both for the cases he argued inside of the courtroom and the movement he spawned outside of it.  Altogether he argued before the Supreme Court 32 times and won 29 of those arguments.

On numerous occasions he faced physical violence for his efforts. For example, in Columbia, Tennessee there was a race riot in 1946, and 25 black men were charged with attempted murder for trying to defend themselves against rioters.  Marshall went down and got 24 of them acquitted.

The local sheriff didn’t take kindly to that, and while Marshall was driving out of town with two of his co-counsel, police pulled him over and accused him of drunk driving, even though he hadn’t had a drink in days.  Instead of taking him to jail, they took him to an abandoned street where a lynch mob was waiting. 

Luckily his colleagues who had ridden in the car with him had followed the police upon Marshall’s arrest, and when they announced themselves, the lynch mob was called off to avoid witnesses.

In 1946, Marshall was also an adjunct professor at Howard’s law school. According to Judge Keith, Marshall would proclaim that he and his legal team at the NAACP were on the path towards tearing down segregation, and that there was no way that American institutions could be both separate and equal at the same time. He would say, “Up on the Supreme Court building, written in marble, are the words ‘equal justice under law.’ Let’s make this society live up that!”

More than 60 years later, I would sit in Judge Keith’s chambers, and he would regale me with stories about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. I would ask him where he found the courage to stand up to so much violence.

Now in his late 80s, he would lean back in his chair and respond that throughout his career, his one aim was to make this society live up to the one bold mantra of “equal justice under law,” because it was the right thing to do. Then, he would point to the pictures on the wall of him with Thurgood Marshall arm in arm, and at that point it would really sink in.

Marshall literally changed the nature of our society well before he ever became a judge, really even before he litigated Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that in 1954 overturned Plessey v. Ferguson and ended legally mandated segregation. His courage, commitment and ideals greatly influenced a whole generation of young people, like Judge Keith, who would go on to lead the Civil Rights Movement. For that reason alone, his legacy is worth celebrating.

Hansford is an assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law.

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