Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black History Month Profile: Thurgood Marshall

This is a special blog by DCAYA Communications and Development Manager, JR Russ.

I'm a DC native, born and raised. I went to St. Albans and sang in the Washington National Cathedral's Boys Choir from 5th to 7th grade, 1991 to 1994. During the spring semester of my 6th grade year, Thurgood Marshall passed away on Sunday, January 24, 1993. The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys would sing at his funeral five days later. 23 years later the significance of his achievements and the impact of his work are still affecting and informing my own life.

So for this week's blog, and as part of Black History Month, I wanted to share this profile of him.

Education and Career

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. He attended Frederick Douglass High School and graduated a year early in 1925. He went on to Lincoln University, where his classmates included Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway. He graduated with honors as an American literature and philosophy major, with a Bachelor of Arts in the Humanities. He then attended to Howard University Law School, where he graduated first in his class, in 1933.

After law school, Thurgood Marshall started his own private law practice in Baltimore. A year after graduating from law school, he represented that National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a law school discrimination suit. Two years later, he would become a part of NAACP's national staff in 1936. In 1940 he would go on to found the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and become its executive Director. And in 1954 he would argue his most noted case as a lawyer, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Brown v. Board of Education & School Desegregation

Thurgood Marshall and other members of the N.A.A.C.P. legal defense team
who worked on the Brown v. Board of Education case.
This was a Supreme Court case which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. On May 17, 1954, the court's unanimous decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal". Brown v. Board of Education was a combination of five other cases, all sponsored by the NAACP. And Thurgood Marshall was the NAACP's chief counsel, arguing the case for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court.

The DC State Board of Education moved quickly to desegregate DC Public Schools. The board adopted a desegregation plan only eight days after the Brown v Board of Education decision. And that September in 1954, schools began their school year with integrated faculties and student bodies. Here's a photo at the Library of Congress September 13, 1954, "H.B. Sanders, right, gives instructions to members of a 10th grade class at McKinley Technical High School as the new District of Columbia public school term opens Sept. 13".

The Washington Post also has a couple of resources to further explore the history of DC Schools:
1954 was the beginning of a long road towards equity in education which we are still on, and Thurgood Marshall was instrumental in taking that step forward, as a country and as a city.

The Supreme Court & Legacy

Thurgood Marshall's next step forward would be to the Supreme Court, when he was nominated by President Jonson on June 13, 1967. Thurgood Marshall was the 96th person to hold the position of Associate Justice, and the first African American. In President Johnson's remarks to the press, he said this about his nomination of Thurgood Marshall, that it was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place".

Thurgood Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years. It has been almost as many years since he passed away. He has been remembered in many ways. Memorials of him are located near the location of the Old Maryland Supreme Court Building and in the atrium of the primary office building for the federal court system here in the District. The latter building is also named in honor of him, as is the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. In Washington, DC, we have the Thurgood Marshall Center in Shaw, the Thurgood Marshall Academy, and the District based Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

And although it's nothing as concrete as a building or a statue with his name, his legacy lives on in the work many of our community based and member organizations do with communities in all eight wards, bringing programs and services to youth and their family, some of which address the barriers to education many still face. There are so many factors that contribute to a young person's ability to thrive and succeed, and the journey toward equity in education that started in 1954 is a road we are all still on.

Thank You

Thank you for letting me share this reflection and profile. I can't believe it's been 23 years since I sang at his funeral. You can actually go to C-Span's website and watch a video of Justice Thurgood Marshall's Memorial Services.

And thank you, in advance, to all those who are joining us during this year's advocacy season. In case you missed them, I recommend checking out two of our more recent blogs for ways you can be involved.
We've come so far from where this road to equity in education started. But we've still got a lot of work to do, and we can only move forward together. And we need you, to continue building a Youth-Friendly DC, where all DC youth are aware of and have access to the opportunities for equitable education and employment; where we as a city recognize, enable, and support each and every youth's ability to realize their full potential as an accomplished individual and contributing member of their community.

- JR Russ, Communications and Development Manager, DCAYA

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