Keesha: With Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court today, I'm amazed at how many people I know think of him as a first. He isn't. He's the second and, like most sequels, he doesn't live up to the original: Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall was the grandson of a slave and was denied entry to the University of Maryland Law School in 1930. (He was born in 1908.) In 1933, he would successfully sue the University of Maryland Law School when they denied another black man entry (Donald Gaines Murray).
That's an important point to make today because we've got someone on the Court who doesn't believe in an equal playing field. But Marshall did and he dedicated his life to that belief and to the belief that we had to help one another because, regardless of what some Queen Bee exceptions might think, no one makes it all on their own.
He once said, "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody -- a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns -- bent down and helped us pick up our boots."
Marshall was very familiar with the Court before he became a Supreme Court Justice. He successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the Court. That landmark case (1954) still stands as an important milestone. There are many other landmark cases and to highlight one more, Shelley vs. Kraemer also changed the landscape. This 1948 case resulted in racial covenants in housing being declared unconstitutional thereby breaking the color line in housing.
From 1940 to 1961, Marshall was the legal director of the NAACP. His case history focused on issues that have made our lives better and we would all owe him (regardless of our skin color) a huge debt of gratitude even had he retired from law in 1961 and stepped away from public life.
However, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in 1961 and though white racists from the south in the Senate attempted to block his appointment, President Kennedy used the recess appointment power to place Marshall on the court. Marshall would serve on that court until 1965. When he stepped down, he still wasn't done with public life.
Instead, in 1965, he became the Solicitor General of the United States (President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him). Then, in 1967, he was appointed to the Supreme Court and became the first black person to serve on the Court. He would serve on the Court until 1991 when he retired due to illness. (He would pass away in 1993.)
Thurgood Marshall's legacy is one of inclusion and providing a voice to people who would otherwise not be heard. It irritates me when I come across someone who is unaware of Marshall or his contributions and wrongly assumes that Clarence Thomas is a trail blazer. They can't argue that based on his Court record, so they attempt to say he is the first African-American to serve on the Court. He's not. He doesn't have that claim and he doesn't have a record to be proud of. Thurgood Marshall does and, though he is now deceased, he belongs to all of us and to history. We're all a lot better off because someone like Thurgood Marshall came before.
[Note, last year The Nation devoted a full issue to Brown v. Board of Education (May 3, 2004). From that issue, Judge Robert L. Carter's "The Long Road to Equality" is recommended.]