On a cloudy, humid Sunday afternoon on January 24, 1993, 84-year-old Thurgood Marshall took his last breath in a stark hospital room surrounded by his loved ones. His great heart had given out at last. At his funeral in the majestic National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., few of the young people felt their elders' profound sense of loss or appreciated the enormous mark left by Thurgood Marshall. "On the subject of the racial issue, you can't be a little bit wrong anymore than you can be a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead," the folksy Supreme Court Justice had once said (Hess 1990: p. 18). An uncompromising civil rights radical before Martin Luther King Jr., was even born, Marshall never once participated in a sit-in or civil rights demonstration. He was too busy litigating on behalf of the civil rights of all minorities.
The future Supreme Court Justice was born in Baltimore on a steamy hot day, July 2, 1908. He was named Thoroughgood, after his grandfather Marshall, a name he shortened to "Thurgood" in second grade because it seemed too long to spell. His mother Wilma was an elementary school teacher. His father William quit his job as a Pullman porter to become a waiter at the prestigious Gibson Island Club on Maryland's eastern shore, a club for whites only. Thurgood had an older brother named Aubrey (Marshall & Tushnet, 2001).
Discussion and Analysis
Family tradition kept alive the memory of Thurgood Marshall's great grandfather, whom white slave traders kidnapped from Africa sometime in the 1840s. Both of Marshall's grandfathers fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, and both opened up grocery stores in Baltimore afterward, joining the sparse ranks of the black middle class.
Thurgood Marshall's childhood was happy and secure, and he grew into a mischievous child. In elementary school he misbehaved so often that the principal sent him almost daily into "solitary confinement" in the school's basement. Each time he was punished, he had to memorize a section of the U.S. Constitution. "Before I left that school, I knew the entire Constitution by heart," he quipped. He was surprised to learn that the 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote, when nobody he knew, including his father, voted. He was also surprised to learn that the 14th Amendment granted all Americans equal protection under the law, since he knew this was not really so (Horn & Marshall, 2004).
Despite his schoolboy shenanigans, Thurgood did extremely well, even graduating from high school early at age 16. Afterward he headed for Lincoln University, a prestigious all-black school in Chester, Pennsylvania. The school was established by a white clergyman in 1854 to give blacks an education comparable to whites. The entire teaching staff was still white when Marshall entered as a freshman. That first year, Marshall clowned around a lot, playing pinochle or poker all night when other students stayed up studying for exams. Finally, the university expelled him because of his fondness for "hazing," or ...