||Last Updated: Jun 3rd, 2011 - 13:08:42
Donald Temple, Esq.
Remarks St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church
Thurgood Marshall Sunday
May 16, 2010
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on our way
Thy who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in thy path we pray
Lest our feet, stray from the places
Our God where we met thee
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world
We forget thee
Shadowed beneath thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land.
Good morning Mrs. Marshall, Pastor, and members of this Church, I am honored and humbled to speak here at St. Augustine’s, Justice Marshall’s home church, on this celebrated “Thurgood Marshall Sunday” and the Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. This is truly a cherished moment.
In these few minutes, I have been asked to capture the work of Thurgood Marshall from a spiritual perspective, a proposition that requires deep thought.
How does one even begin to stick his toe in the water of Thurgood’s spirituality except perhaps, as here, through his work. In that respect, it has been said that “Words are wonderful, but deeds are divine.” I would like to briefly talk about Thurgood from this perspective: “Thurgood: taking us to a place in the law where God dwells.”
Where is that place? Where is the place in the law where God Dwells?
Fundamentally, in the deep religious convictions of world religions, all men
and women are children of God. And God’s love, at least theoretically, knows no color line. As children of God we too espouse color blindness in our own spiritual and Christian life journeys.
In Galatians 3.28 it is written: “ There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It was probably this thinking that gave birth to those proverbial words in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Against this backdrop, enter the institution of slavery, a deeply rooted, human contradiction. Slavery! American slavery, a commonly accepted way of life sanctioned by American law, tested the spiritual essence of both perpetrator and victim.
Far too many gloss over this chapter in American history and would rather avoid it, but not Thurgood Marshall. Marshall etched his reflections on the subject in stone in his 1978 dissenting opinion in Bakke v. University of California writing in part:
“Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Negro was dragged to this country in chains to be sold into slavery. Uprooted from his homeland and thrust into bondage for forced labor, the slave was deprived of all legal rights. It was unlawful to teach him to read; he could be sold away from his family and friends at the whim of his master; and killing or maiming him was not a crime. The system of slavery brutalized and dehumanized both master and slave.”
Marshall understood the significance of people being treated as mere property, with as much value as this candelabrum.
Marshall honed into this notion further:
“The position of the Negro slave as mere property was confirmed by this Court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision The Court declared that under the Constitution a slave was property, and "[the] right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property, was guarantied to the citizens of the United States . . . .". The Court further concluded that Negroes were not intended to be included as citizens under the Constitution but were "regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect . . . ."
Citing the 1873 Slaughterhouse cases, he reminded us that racial segregation did not end in 1865. Marshall penned: “The status of the Negro as property was officially erased by his emancipation at the end of the Civil War. But the long-awaited emancipation, while freeing the Negro from slavery, did not bring him citizenship or equality in any meaningful way. Slavery was replaced by a system of ‘laws which imposed upon the colored race onerous disabilities and burdens, and curtailed their rights in the pursuit of life, liberty, and property to such an extent that their freedom was of little value.’”
Marshall chillingly noted: “Despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Negro was systematically denied the rights those Amendments were supposed to secure. The combined actions and inactions of the State and Federal Governments maintained Negroes in a position of legal inferiority for another century after the Civil War.”
The state of American law between 1619 and 1954 and its cruel, divisive and dehumanizing implications had a profound effect on Thurgood. They crystallized his evolution and the integration of his mind, heart and soul on the question of race. His connection to this American crisis became far from theoretical and rhetorical.
He saw wretched poverty and the effects of centuries of discrimination close and up front. There was a distinct Black world and a White world, separate and unequal called “Jim Crow”. It was an era where an ounce of Black blood made a person racially inferior and another superior, a line to be crossed at one’s own peril.
He realized that racial superiority was not the stuff of God! And his deep conviction ran through the blood of his veins.
He thus fearlessly confronted post-slavery racism in the face of dangerous life threatening risks and against unimaginable white resistance. On any given moment, his life could have been snatched away. Medger Evers. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and those four little girls in that Birmingham Church is proof certain of that.
Pray tell, what could one man do?
His teacher and mentor, the late Charles Hamilton Houston, pioneered and charted a course for Marshall’s navigation. The institutional and psychologically effective racial barriers in education, housing, voting, public accommodations, exacerbated by lynchings, beatings and pervasive violence and chilling, stenched second-class citizenship status inspired their nearly thirty years of gut wrenching litigation during the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.
Two Black lawyers in a tsunami of American apartheid where race defined status, rights, privilege and opportunity. And yes, without the influence and inspiration of the late Charles Houston, there would not have been a Thurgood Marshall. Guided by Houston’s intellectual push and tug, Marshall emerged as the century’s foremost legal warrior. He began to systematically challenge and dismantle America’s foremost constitutional and spiritual contradiction.
Greatest among Marshall’s gifts was his fortitude, his faith and conviction. For a trial lawyer, the litigation of a single case is an engaging and demanding experience from the inception of a case to its conclusion. To travel to the American South and to litigate case after case against a backdrop of violence and racial hatred had to be equally engaging. To take case after case to a Courts of Appeal and to the United States Supreme was most engaging.
Rarely, does a private bar lawyer get to argue a case before the Supreme Court nonetheless win most of their cases.
Marshall took landmark cases to the Supreme Court and slowly but surely dismantled America’s institutional racism in electoral politics, real estate and education: Chambers v. Florida, Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s "separate but equal" pronouncement. Tragically, Charles Houston didn’t live to experience the much celebrated Brown decision.
During his sojourn, Marshal inevitably experienced the pain of denial and suffering, insufficient financial support, fear for his wife and family, and hopelessness among his clients and the people he attempted to help. He invariably experienced self-doubt and consternation about his own ability to persuade courts to adopt his then unprecedented relief.
These repeated experiences surely tested his faith in God. I am confident that Thurgood had to have had some incredible conversations with God to firm up his convictions. I am equally confident that his victories were inspired by his faith in God and the faith of the people he cared so deeply about.
As a young lawyer I was privileged to meet then Justice Marshall and to hear him speak here in Washington. His passion for justice and thirst for equality were unquenchable. I was particularly intrigued with his probing sense and understanding of law and human behavior from his years of practice and experience at the highest levels of our justice system. Thurgood Marshall saw an America that too few of us see and a history that too few of us remember.
Marshall deeply understood the fragility of mankind on the issue of race. He realized that despite our faith and fundamental morality, the simple fact of a person’s complexion, nationality, gender or religion could create a life altering societal wedge. He understood that racial bias is an individual contaminant that can pollute and destroy a society. He was very clear about what White supremacy in Germany did with Nazism and in South Africa with Apartheid. He spent his life challenging, changing and warning America of our vulnerability to this contaminant.
As early as 1935, when Marshall and Houston broke down the barrier of discrimination at the University of Maryland School of Law, the same school that rejected his law school application, Marshall hoped for a much different society and world.
Ladies and gentlemen, to Thurgood Marshall’s credit, we have come a long way as a nation and a people. Through his faith in God, Marshall breathed new life into our American legal system for each and every one of us and for future generations. It is now our responsibility to borrow from his strength, courage and vision and to carry on his legacy in our daily lives.
We are not quite where we need to be. But 145 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, we are much closer to becoming a society with a system of law and equality where God dwells than we have ever been.
Thank you Thurgood Marshall, and thank you Mrs. Marshall.
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