is Doug Johnson with People in America in VOA Special English. Every week we tell about a person who was
important in the history of the United States.
Today we tell about a man who helped change the racial separation laws
of America, Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall was born a free man. But the
father of his grandfather was a slave.
He had lived in what was the Congo area of Africa. A man from the eastern American city of
Baltimore, Maryland, brought him to the United States. He later set him free.
Marshall was born in Baltimore on July second, nineteen-oh-eight. In that city, and in many other parts of the
United States at that time, black people were separated from white people by
law. Black children did not go to
school with white children. Black
people lived only in areas where other blacks lived.
Over the years, Thurgood Marshall became a very
good storyteller. He told stories about
himself, or about places he had visited.
Often, the stories were funny.
But most also had a serious message.
One story was about
being in trouble with his teachers when he was a boy in Baltimore.
Marshall said one of his teachers punished him by sending him to the room where
the school's heating equipment was kept.
There he was told to read and remember the words of the Constitution of
the United States.
Constitution is a long document.
Thurgood Marshall said he read all of it -- more than once -- and
learned to remember most of it.
this schoolboy punishment gave him a life-long respect for the
Constitution. As he grew older, he
began to think about the Constitution's guarantees of freedom. Those guarantees, he believed, should be for
people of all races, not just for white people.
Marshall attended Lincoln University in the state of Pennsylvania. He completed his studies, with honors, in
nineteen thirty. He wanted to go to law
school at the University of Maryland.
But officials at that school refused to let him attend because he was
black. So he went to law school at
Howard University in Washington D.C.
Howard University was a school for African Americans. Thurgood Marshall graduated first in his
After completing his law
studies, he accepted the case of a young black man who wanted to become a
lawyer, too. The young man wanted to
attend the University of Maryland law school.
It was the same school that had refused to admit Thurgood Marshall. Again, the school refused to let a black man
become a student. So, Mister Marshall
took legal action. He won the
case. The young black man was permitted
to attend the university's law school.
Thurgood Marshall would go on to
win many more cases dealing with racial separation laws. And years later, the University of Maryland
would name its law library in his honor.
Thurgood Marshall was a very good lawyer. The people he represented in court were black
and poor. He never earned much
money. But his name soon became well
known. The National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People offered him a job. He went to work as one of its legal representatives.
he became the organization's chief legal representative. He traveled across the United States. He fought against racial separation
laws. He also defended black people who
were charged with a crime, but who did not have the money to pay for legal
those cases reached America's highest court, the Supreme Court of the United
States. During his life as a lawyer,
Thurgood Marshall argued cases before the Supreme Court more than thirty times. He lost only a few cases. Slowly, the laws of racial separation in
America began to change. Many of those
changes were the result of the work of Thurgood Marshall.
experts say that Thurgood Marshall's most important case was the one known as
"Brown versus Board of Education." The
case involved the city of Topeka in the middle western state of Kansas.
A law there said that having separate schools for black students
and white students was legal, if the schools were the same. It was the idea of "separate but
equal". But the schools were not
equal. White children received a better
education than black children.
Thurgood Marshall agreed to argue the case
before the Supreme Court. When
newspapers reported this, he began getting messages threatening him with
rights lawyers said he was moving too quickly.
They said a defeat in the Brown case would greatly damage the cause of
civil rights. They told him to wait, to
move more carefully and slowly.
Marshall did not listen to the threats against his life. And he did not listen to those who said he
should move more slowly. The Supreme
Court heard the case in nineteen fifty-four. Mister Marshall said it was a
violation of the Constitution to separate people because of their race.
So, he argued, the racially
separated schools in Topeka, Kansas, were illegal. He added that nothing could be equal in racially separated
One Supreme Court justice asked him to
explain what he meant by the word equal.
He answered: "Equal means
getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place." The
Supreme Court agreed. It ruled that no
one could be rejected from a school in Topeka because of race.
of "Brown versus Board of Education" provided the basis for other court
decisions. It helped destroy the
terrible wall of legal racial separation throughout the United States. Some people say it is the most important
Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century.
decision was the beginning of years of legal battles against racial separation
in America's schools. It also sent a
message to the people of the nation that black Americans had the same rights as
white Americans. Many African Americans
said Mister Marshall's victory in nineteen fifty-four changed their lives and
In nineteen sixty-one, President John Kennedy
named Thurgood Marshall to be a judge of a federal appeals court. During his years on that court, Judge
Marshall wrote more than one hundred opinions on different legal issues. Several of his opinions from those days have
been approved as law by a majority of the Supreme Court.
nineteen sixty-seven, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to
the Supreme Court. President Johnson
said the nomination was the right thing to do, and the right time to do
it. Thurgood Marshall became the first
black person to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. He served for twenty-four years.
Marshall wrote opinions about legal representation in America's criminal
justice system. He said everyone has
the right to be represented by a good lawyer, no matter how guilty they may be.
last years on the Supreme Court, he often voted against the majority of the
more conservative members. Justice
Marshall always voted in dissent in cases in which the majority voted that a
death sentence was legal. He said no
one should be put to death for any reason.
nineteen ninety-one, Thurgood Marshall announced that he would retire from the
Supreme Court. Some reports said he no
longer wanted to fight against the conservative majority of the court. At a news conference, a reporter asked him
why he was retiring. Justice Marshall
looked at the man and said, simply: "I
am getting old and coming apart."
reporter asked Justice Marshall how he would like to be remembered. He sat quietly for a moment. Then Thurgood Marshall said: "I want to be remembered for doing the best
I could with what I had."
program was written by Paul Thompson. It
was produced by Lawan Davis. This is Doug Johnson.
is Gwen Outen. Listen again next week for People in America in VOA Special