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The Civil Rights Icon Everyone Forgets About

A major civil rights victory occurred a decade prior to King’s I Have a Dream speech.

While today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can’t deny that it is less about him personally and more about the cause that he represents.  And to that end, I think that it is appropriate to highlight the work of another civil rights leader.

A couple years ago, some deemed October 2nd, “Thurgood Marshall Day” in honor of the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the Supreme Court. While October is long gone, the topic of civil rights is especially relevant today.

Can anyone tell me what Thurgood Marshall is known for?  Is it something that is taught in school with the same enthusiasm as we are taught about King? Is it something that gets an entire day off work and school for?  Is it something that generates innumerable inspirational quotes and events across the nation?

Marshall and King represent divergent views of how to bring about social change.  King represents the appeal to the public, to the sensibilities of man, to the moral fabric of society.  Marshall represents the equally American view that we are governed by laws, not by the passions of society. Societal changes is thus brought about by addressing law, arguing about law, and making a case before governments and judges that our foundational documents compel change.

Marshall was undoubtedly liberal in his jurisprudence, but that does not detract from what he is best known for.  Aside from being a federal judge, the Solicitor General of the United States, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall is known for arguing Brown v. Board of Education.

This landmark case desegregated schools and overturned the abhorrent decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.

In our system, especially now when certain “rights” are at stake, the left likes to scream “stare decisis.” That is, cases that have been unchallenged for a long time have an increasing value as precedent.  But precedent is not the only defining aspect of our system, though it is useful its own right.  We rely on foundational documents and ideals. When policy is at odds with those ideals, we are not compelled to accept those policies for tradition’s sake.  When law is deficient, the answer is not, “overthrow the system,” or “tolerate the system,” but “fix the law.”

I think that is what Thurgood Marshall represents. And despite his own criticism of those founding documents, his own legacy shows that the general form of government was sufficient to create a society where good law reigns and where bad law is challenged.  This doesn’t even require the “living constitution” view that Marshall had.

We live in a nation where law and morality are tied.  And when they are not, we can make the case that they ought to be.  Our founding ideals generally compel that result. So as we think about Martin Luther King Jr., remember that a decade before his I Have A Dream speech, Thurgood Marshall was doing the dull work of a lawyer, making arguments, analyzing law, and seeking the end of institutional racism because American Law was worth pursuing.


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