Thurgood Marshall: an Effective Advocate for Civil Rights

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thurgood marshall

Thurgood Marshall: an Effective Advocate for Civil Rights

I recently watched the movie, Marshall, and became interested in Thurgood Marshall, so I did some research to discover more about him. The movie portrayed him as a bit of a rabble-rouser, but like all movies that are “based on true events,” it was a bit off the mark. I found him to be a more enlightened individual than the movie portrayed. Skillful in pushing change, he used the Constitution and the word of law to enact his agenda of universal rights for all.

Thurgood knew how to beat a bully

It isn’t through emotional outbursts or loudly spoken demands. Instead, it is by carefully and coolly using the weapons at hand—in this case, the law. And much of what Thurgood accomplished was through making allies and not enemies.

For instance, he didn’t apply to the University of Maryland Law school, his local school. In the early part of the last century, African Americans couldn’t attend the University of Maryland School of Law, which Thurgood knew. Instead, he went to Howard University to get his degree. After some strong mentoring by the new dean of Howard University’s law school, he went into law to protect the oppressed. Once he had his own law practice, he met another young African American who actually had applied to the University of Maryland law school and was denied acceptance. While representing Donald Gaines Murray, Marshall eventually prevailed in getting Murray accepted to the school, winning his case before the State of Maryland Supreme Court. He had won the battle against the school to which he had once known he would be denied attendance only when he had the tools at his disposal to fight.

Fighting for what is right

Thurgood strongly believed in fighting hard for what was right and knew the law would follow. He was one of our country’s strongest constitutional attorneys. Thirty-two times he represented people not getting a fair break in front of the United States Supreme Court. He won all but three of those cases. He won his first case at the Supreme Court at the age of thirty-two.

His most famous case was Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. He successfully argued that “separate was not equal,” setting the stage for other public schools to accept people of all races. This landmark case broke apart the barriers that had prevented African American students from going to the schools of their choice.

Thurgood founded the NAACP legal arm and served in that post for twenty-five years. During that time, he created much of the legal legwork to support the later civil rights movement.

While other civil rights activists worked against J. Edgar Hoover, Marshall found a way to make Hoover an ally. He pushed President Kennedy on civil rights and encouraged him to appoint more African American judges. In turn, he was appointed to the federal appellate court as a judge and later was appointed, by Kennedy, as the country’s Solicitor General.

When Lyndon Johnson became President, he appointed Thurgood as the first African American Supreme Court justice. It was post he filled for twenty-four years. His service as a federal appellate judge had provided him with the necessary training to serve on our nation’s highest court.

Many may not know the deeper history of this wonderful American.

His story isn’t just about what he accomplished, but more about how he accomplished his goals. He was certainly liberal in his views, but not blindly so. He didn’t vote strictly on party lines but on what he believed was right. The most conservative judges respected him because he fought for his causes based on what he believed was right. He didn’t push for change until he had the right tools and information.

Thurgood knew that getting into wars of words with bullies was a dead-end street. He needed facts and the law to support his causes. He avoided celebrity to focus on the truth. As with his battle with the University of Maryland, he didn’t forget; instead, he returned to fight when he was prepared as a lawyer and used the Constitution to win his case.

Jesus tells us to stand up for the weak and to fight for the downtrodden. But Jesus also told us to be wise and kind as doves. This was Thurgood’s approach. In a very Christian manner, he pushed hard but not at the expense of civility.

Finding support

While others will squawk about what’s unfair, they forget to make allies. In their haste to get what they want, they forget about the barriers that angry discourse creates. Thurgood knew that any cause that is just will attract honorable people while name-calling attracts the wrong supporters.

While Martin Luther King felt that civil disobedience without violence was the right way, Thurgood believed it was through the legal system. Despite their difference, King driven by the Bible and Marshall by the law, they respected each other. When Marshall received harsh criticism by the more militant of the civil rights leaders, he stood his ground. He had been toughened up many years earlier in southern courtrooms while fighting for civil rights. He was there when they were young. Their criticism was nowhere near the violence he had faced many years earlier, like the time he’d had shotguns pointed at him on a train platform.

Rights for all

Thurgood Marshall is not the most visibly famous of the advocates for the universal rights for all people. But he is certainly the one who most changed the course of civil rights in America. Martin Luther King knew this, and despite their differences in approach, wrote to both President Kennedy and Johnson asking that Thurgood being made a Justice.

They complied.

Wrong is wrong and always needs to be corrected. There is always a need for immediacy to all change. Importantly, change needs two things: allies and intellect. Thurgood was a model for others to follow in affecting change. Angry rhetoric will not move the angry bear called injustice, calmness will. Power isn’t given up by clanging cymbals together but through genuine intellect. Those who seek to push back injustices while obtaining celebrity will not succeed. Those who seek to remove injustice with compassion in their heart will succeed.

Thurgood Marshall was a great American, and he knew our Constitution well. He may not be the most famous civil rights advocate, but he was certainly one of its most effective.

Dr. Bruce L Hartman, Christian Author and Story Teller. A former Fortune 500 CFO who left the corporate world to engage in a ministry of “Connecting The Lessons of the Gospels to the Modern Life.”  His life mission is “Helping People Walk into a Brighter Future.”

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash