Thurgood Marshall book jacket

When Thurgood Marshall was a young boy, a descendant of slaves growing up in the segregated South, he asked his father what he should do if a classmate called him “the N word.”

His father said if that happened, he insisted that his son should fight, Spencer Crew recalled.

Marshall’s father also taught the boy how to argue and win — training that served him well as he became an attorney, battled for civil rights and desegregation, and became the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., spoke Monday night at the Museum of the Rockies. He recently published a biography, “Thurgood Marshall: A Life in American History.”

Marshall, after graduating at the top of his Howard University law school class in 1933, worked as an attorney for the NAACP challenging segregation laws.

He traveled to the deep South with his mentor, law Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, and witnessed the dilapidated schools for black children that resulted from the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision endorsing the “separate but equal” doctrine.

NAACP attorneys challenged college law schools that barred black students, arguing that when there were no separate but comparable schools, students must be admitted to all-white schools.

The strategy was to win cases, forcing segregated states to provide equal facilities that would become so expensive, the system would break down of its own weight, Crew said.

They challenged laws barring black voters from the Texas “white primary,” excluding American Americans from jury pools, housing covenants that barred minorities and discrimination on inter-state bus lines.

Marshall became famous as “Mr. Civil Rights,” Crew said, but it also made him a target. Often he would travel by himself by train or car to rural towns to defend African Americans. Black families would move him to a different house every night and sometimes post armed guards. He feared attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.

Once in 1946 Marshall traveled to Columbia, Tennessee, and won a case. But as friends drove him out of town, police stopped their car twice. Claiming Marshall was drunk, they took him into custody and drove into the woods. Fortunately his friends refused to drive off and abandon him, and instead brought Marshall before a judge, who let him go.

His most important case was the 1954 landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, a direct assault on segregation. Instead of accepting segregation as reality but trying to make it more expensive, the NAACP argued segregation itself was wrong and created a sense of inferiority among black children. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, sending shock waves through the country.

Yet the times were changing. In 1956, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks led the Montgomery, Alabama, boycott of segregated city buses. Where Marshall believed in change through the law, the new generation of civil rights leaders believed in civil disobedience and breaking the law to bring change. “Freedom now” efforts could work faster than court cases, Crew said, but came with great peril.

Marshall served several years as a federal judge and as the first African American solicitor general, representing the federal government before the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued 19 cases and won 14.

In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the highest court and engineered his Senate confirmation.

Marshall served 24 years on the Supreme Court. He was happy as a member of an activist court, which viewed the Constitution as a living document that should reflect the times and help minorities, the poor and women. As the court became more conservative, however, Marshall ended up on the losing side, writing stinging dissents and becoming angry and bitter.

In 1987, on the 200th anniversary celebration of the Constitution, Marshall argued the original document was highly flawed, having condoned slavery and excluded people without property, Native Americans and women. What made the Constitution useful, he argued, was that it was flexible, amended and improved over time to bring more people under its umbrella of rights.

Despite poor health, he refused to retire when Jimmy Carter was president. “That’s one reason I’m mad at Marshall,” Crew said. The justice finally stepped down in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush nominated as his replacement the conservative Clarence Thomas, who opposed Marshall’s views.

Marshall died in 1993, having “left behind an impressive legacy of defense of human rights,” Crew said. “His efforts made America a better place.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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