During Black History Month, We Remember U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Gifts

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

From the very beginning everyone knew he was different. Tall, charismatic and articulate even at a young age, he disdained the glory of the Baltimore playing fields and instead entertained his family with wry anecdotes and sardonic commentaries about local baseball and football teams that were popular around the neighborhood. Blessed with a mellifluous, hypnotic baritone voice, he dominated every classroom and debate hall he entered, enrapturing his audiences with his easy charm and uncommon intelligence.

Graduating at the top of his Howard University law school class, he turned down Harvard University’s offer to continue his legal studies in Cambridge and instead took a low-paying associate’s position with the NAACP — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — in New York City. His friends and classmates were bewildered, but Thurgood Marshall had found his home and for the next thirty years, he marched into steamy, sweltering courtrooms across the American South and raised his voice against a Jim Crow legal system that was arbitrarily murderous and ferociously brutal to the powerless and destitute. Traveling endlessly across the country, he handled over 500 cases a year, often arriving alone in small, dusty hamlets or sprawling, big cities armed only with a satchel filled with legal papers and law books. His legal victories, which included the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision, became the stuff of legend and the cornerstones of the subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which leveled the playing field for all Americans.

Ultimately, Marshall argued 32 cases before the United States Supreme Court, winning 29 of the decisions using a combination of folksy humor, steely eloquence and a bulletproof command of the Constitution that was unparalleled.

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Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.

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