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Under Marshall, Legal System Became Literal Court of Last Resort

Thurgood Marshall is remembered as the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice. But he made his name as the nation's best-known civil-rights lawyer, notably arguing the landmark Brown versus Board of Education case before the high court in 1954. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that so-called "separate but equal" public facilities -- which usually were anything but equal for minorities -- were unconstitutional and unlawful.

"Thurgood Marshall is one of the most important African-Americans in the struggle for racial equality in the 20th century," says Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "While he was best-known for Brown versus Board of Education, for almost two generations before that he went around the country to protect blacks legally when people thought that wasn't possible. And he made great gains. African-Americans felt they had a place to go. There was a recourse against discrimination. That was the court system."

Thurgood Marshall's remarks in another argument before the Supreme Court in 1958, four years after Brown v. Board, were captured in a rare recording from the court chamber.

"Education is not the teaching of three R's [reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic]," Marshall told the justices. "Education is the teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law. I don't know of any more horrible destruction of principle of citizenship than to tell young children that those of you who withdrew rather than go to school with Negroes: Come back, all is forgiven. You win.

"I worry about the white children who are told that the way to get your rights is to violate the law and defy the lawful authorities. I'm worried about their future. I don't worry about those Negro kids' future. They've been struggling with democracy long enough."

According to Lonnie Bunch, Marshall "is making the argument that the struggle for equality is something that shapes us all. And he really wants to move away from the notion that this is a 'black problem by saying this will create a society of lawlessness that will undermine us all. He is realizing four years after Brown that integration would not be easy, that hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren are leaving schools rather than go to integrated schools, creating all-white academies.

"What he's trying to do is to say, 'I do not want Brown versus Board of Education to ultimately create another way of separate-but-equal. What I want to do is to ensure that everybody follow the law, including those kids and those parents who want to flee.'"

This is one of a series of reports on Say it Plain, a collection of excerpts from 32 memorable speeches by notable African-Americans.