Remembering Justice Thurgood Marshall

On June 13, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was appointed a Supreme Court justice by President Lyndon Johnson. He was the first African American named to the nation’s highest court. Not that he had never been in those hallowed halls before — he had argued and won his first Supreme Court case at age 32 in Chambers v. Florida, which ruled that the use of mental torture, accompanied by threats of violence, was enough to justify the suppression of a confession (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chambers-v-Florida). His most famous victory was 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which had sanctioned the “separate but equal” policy of school segregation.

You may know about Marshall’s legal reputation, but you probably aren’t familiar with his personal life. This quote from The Writer’s Almanac of June 13, 2021 ( https://www.spreaker.com/show/the-writers-almanac?) provides some insight into his personality —

He once said, “I intend to wear life as a loose garment,” and described himself as a hedonist who didn’t have time for pleasure. He enjoyed poker and bourbon and pigs’ feet, and placing two-dollar bets at the racetrack, and never took himself too seriously. One famous anecdote tells the story about a white family, tourists, who accidentally got on the justices’ elevator in the Supreme Court building. Marshall was already on the elevator, and they mistook him for the elevator operator. They told him their floor, and he replied, “Yessir, yessir.” It was only when he got off with them that they realized who he was, and he watched their reaction in amusement.

He was a self-described “hell-raiser” in school, and his teacher used to send miscreants to the basement to study the Constitution. “I made my way through every paragraph,” he said. His was the dissenting voice at the 1987 bicentennial celebration of the Constitution; while other speakers praised the document and the founding fathers’ foresight, he said:

“The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite ‘The Constitution,’ they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago. … The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes. They could not have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendent of an African slave. ‘We the People’ no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equality,’ and who strived to better them.”

Although he had once said, “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband,” he retired from the court in 1991 due to ill health.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, an American original.

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