To understand the impact Thurgood Marshall had on justice in the United States, one has to recognize the plight of black communities in the first half of the 20th century.
In front of an intimate crowd Saturday night at the Phyllis P. Marshall Center Ballroom, Fox News and National Public Radio political analyst Juan Williams recounted several stories of hardship told to him by the late Supreme Court Justice in a speech titled “50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Struggle: from Brown v. Topeka (Kan.) Board of Education to Today.”
Williams noted that while Marshall traveled the South in the 1930s with Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of the Howard University Law School, while attending the Washington, D.C., school, Marshall saw depths of poverty he had never imagined.
While Marshall was inspecting a schoolhouse that was little more than a leaky shack, Williams said a small boy took an orange from Marshall, bit through the rind, then chucked the fruit to the ground and said it was sour. Taken aback, Marshall scolded the boy until Houston remarked on the level of impoverishment in the community, telling Marshall that the boy had probably never even seen an orange, much less tasted one.
“(Houston) then told Marshall ‘a lawyer that is not a social engineer is only a social parasite. Somebody in America has to be a voice for this little boy,'” Williams said.
He noted that at the time the law said schools had to be “separate, but equal,” but in reality, that was hardly the case. Many black children in the South went to substandard schools, and only from December through February because they had to work on sharecroppers’ farms to help their families.
Marshall took from this and other experiences the fortitude to take on the social establishments of segregation and inequality in America, Williams said. But at the root of these injustices was the disparity in education, and for Williams, Brown v. Board of Education was the crux of the civil rights movement.
“The Federal government shifted from supporting segregation and racist policy in this nation,” Williams said. “When you come to the heart and soul of Brown, you have to think about education in this country.”
While Marshall was the catalyst for change in America, it disheartened him (and Williams) that his story was lost amongst the struggle of other civil rights leaders.
“People lose touch with the younger Marshall,” Williams said. “People have no idea of the truly revolutionary work (Marshall did) that changed the ground on which we walk today.”
As lead counsel for the NAACP in numerous Supreme Court cases, Marshall garnered change by being the voice of the minority population, Williams said. Marshall had a pivotal role in events such as the Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus boycott and assured the integration of college and universities in America. And Marshall’s record in Supreme Court cases is exemplary.
“He is the Babe Ruth … of Supreme Court lawyers,” Williams said.
He added that Marshall’s record of 27 victories in 32 Supreme Court cases is far and away the best.
Williams said without Brown v. Board of Education, Florida would not have the largest black middle class in this country and we would not have continued growth in graduations rates at high schools and colleges in the country among minority populations.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Black Emphasis Month Committee and the Amnesty International at USF.