Thurgood Marshall was America's leading radical. He led a civil rights
revolution in the 20th century that forever changed the landscape of American
society. It was Thurgood Marshall, working through the courts to eradicate
the legacy of slavery and destroying the racist segregation system of Jim
Crow, who had an even more profound and lasting effect on race relations
than either of King or Malcolm X.
It was Marshall who ended legal segregation in the United States.
He won Supreme Court victories breaking the color line in housing, transportation
and voting, all of which overturned the 'Separate-but-Equal' apartheid
of American life in the first half of the century. It was Marshall who
won the most important legal case of the century, Brown v. Board of Education,
ending the legal separation of black and white children in public schools.
The success of the Brown case sparked the 1960s civil rights movement,
led to the increased number of black high school and college graduates
and the incredible rise of the black middle-class in both numbers and political
power in the second half of the century.
And it was Marshall, as the nation's first African-American Supreme
Court justice, who promoted affirmative action -- preferences, set-asides
and other race conscious policies -- as the remedy for the damage remaining
from the nation's history of slavery and racial bias. Justice Marshall
gave a clear signal that while legal discrimination had ended, there was
more to be done to advance educational opportunity for people who had been
locked out and to bridge the wide canyon of economic inequity between blacks
He worked on behalf of black Americans, but built a structure of individual
rights that became the cornerstone of protections for all Americans. He
succeeded in creating new protections under law for women, children, prisoners,
and the homeless.
Marshall's lifework, then, literally defined the movement of race relations
through the century. He rejected King's peaceful protest as rhetorical
fluff that accomplished no permanent change in society. And he rejected
Malcolm X's talk of violent revolution and a separate black nation as racist
craziness in a multi-racial society.
The key to Marshall's work was his conviction that integration -- and
only integration -- would allow equal rights under the law to take hold.
Once individual rights were accepted, in Marshall's mind, then blacks and
whites could rise or fall based on their own ability. Marshall died