As a young African American woman and the first lawyer in my family, I find Justice Thurgood Marshall’s life both professionally and personally inspiring. But July 2nd, which would have been Marshall’s 100th birthday, is not just personally significant. It is a day where everyone who is passionate about fairness and equality should pause and reflect on what we must learn from his legacy.
Thurgood Marshall, the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was a pioneer for legal equality who used the civil court system as a tool for change. Born in 1908 in the segregated South, Marshall experienced all the obstacles and indignities that young people today only see in documentaries and textbooks. But by the time he died in 1993, he had not only witnessed the dismantling of formal legal racism, he had actually played an integral role in achieving it.
As a young lawyer he worked to chip away at Jim Crow, combining sophisticated litigation strategies that earned him respect among colleagues, with a unique wit and humor that warmed even those most staunchly hostile to his anti-racist agenda. At the end of his tenure as a civil rights trial lawyer he had won 29 of his 32 Supreme Court cases. But speaking at his alma mater, Howard Law School, in 1978, he warned graduates against believing that the struggle for social justice would end with a few, or even many, courtroom victories:
“[I]t seems to me that what we need to do today is to refocus. Back in the 30s and 40s we could go no place but to court. We knew then that the court was not the final solution. Many of us knew the final solution would have to be politics. . . . So now we have both — we have our legal arm and we have our political arm. Let’s use them both. And don’t listen to this myth that it can be solved by either or that it has already been solved. Take it from me, it has not been solved. You can’t stand still. You must move. . . . “
Marshall’s words could not be truer today. The battleground for achieving social justice through the courts has changed dramatically, in part because many people cannot even get past the courthouse door. My work involves researching and challenging the big business lobby’s efforts to create rules that make it more difficult for people to file important legal claims against powerful corporations. The work involves a steep learning curve, a lot of time and effort, and an income nearly as modest as the same ordinary people whose legal rights I’m working to protect.
But as Marshall indicated thirty years ago, the work is important because the law’s role in achieving a fair and just society has changed. The challenge today is to make the civil legal system work more effectively for those fighting for social justice through the courts; those who face the most daunting obstacles to obtaining it. This includes people like the low-income single parent fighting for child custody without a lawyer, the elderly consumer fighting predatory lending, and the hardworking employee fighting workplace discrimination.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have reversed much of the progress achieved over Marshall’s lifetime. These reversals go by names like Ledbetter, where the Court made it more difficult for women to fight gender-based discrimination, and Exxon, which severely cut a punitive damages award against a company involved in one of our country’s most devastating environmental disasters. These business-friendly decisions remind us that ordinary Americans still experience significant barriers to justice, although the battleground may not look exactly the same as it did when Marshall was a young lawyer.
While the fight for social justice today will entail different strategies than it did when Marshall was a young lawyer, Marshall’s tenacity, creativity, and ultimate success achieving significant victories remind us of what is possible. That itself is cause to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, and reason to reflect on how we all, as persons dedicated to making our society work more fairly and equally, can further his rich legacy.