Thurgood Marshall was America’s leading radical. He led a civil rights revolution in the 20th century that forever changed the landscape of American society. But he is the least well known of the three leading black figures of this century. Martin Luther King Jr., with his preaching’s of love and non-violent resistance, and Malcolm X, the fiery street preacher who advocated a bloody overthrow of the system, are both more closely associated in the popular mind and myth with the civil rights struggle.
But it was Thurgood Marshall, working through the courts to eradicate the legacy of slavery and destroying the racist segregation system of Jim Crow, who had an even more profound and lasting effect on race relations than either of King or Malcolm X.
It was Marshall who ended legal segregation in the United States. He won Supreme Court victories breaking the color line in housing, transportation and voting, all of which overturned the “Separate-but-Equal” apartheid of American life in the first half of the century.
It was Marshall who won the most important legal case of the century, Brown v. Board of Education, ending the legal separation of black and white children in publi.
The success of the Brown case sparked the 1960s civil rights movement, led to the increased number of black high school and college graduates and the incredible rise of the black middle-class in both numbers and political power in the second half of the century.
And it was Marshall, as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, who promoted affirmative action – preferences, set-asides and other race conscious policies – as the remedy for the damage remaining from the nation’s history of slavery and racial bias. Justice Marshall gave a clear signal that while legal discrimination had ended, there was more to be done to advance educational opportunity for people who had been locked out and to bridge the wide canyon of economic inequity between blacks and whites.
He worked on behalf of black Americans, but built a structure of individual rights that became the cornerstone of protections for all Americans. He succeeded in creating new protections under law for women, children, prisoners, and the homeless.
Their greater claim to full citizenship in the republic over the last century can be directly traced to Marshall. Even the American press had Marshall to thank for an expansion of its liberties during the century.
Marshall’s lifework, then, literally defined the movement of race relations through the century. He rejected King’s peaceful protest as rhetorical-fluff that accomplished no permanent change in society. He rejected Malcolm X’s talk of violent revolution and a separate black nation as racist craziness in a racial society.
The key to Marshall’s work was his conviction that integration – and only integration – would allow equal rights under the law to take hold. Once individual rights were accepted, in Marshall’s mind, then blacks and whites could rise or fall based on their own ability.
Marshall’s deep faith in the power of racial integration came out of a middle class black perspective in turn of the century Baltimore.