A Passion for Justice.
Thurgood Marshall once said, "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots." This is just one quote that marks him as a Modern Elder.
His background describes how mentorship, a growth mindset, and lifelong learning, sparked by his passion for justice, played key roles in his legacy.
At the age of 62, after decades of struggle in human rights and justice for all, he reached the pinnacle of his career with the help of many others. His relentless courage, brilliance, moral strength and disregard for fame and fortune won him a seat as the first African American on the highest court of the land, the U.S. Supreme Court.
It started with his parents. Raised by a middle class black family in Baltimore, Maryland, his mother, a teacher with a graduate degree from Columbia University, taught him the importance of education. Even though his father worked as a railroad porter and steward in an all-white country club, his father thirsted for knowledge of the law and took young Thurgood and his brother into courtrooms to watch cases and later debated with them at the dinner table.
His father stressed the importance of knowing the US Constitution, especially the 14th Amendment which gave formerly-enslaved people, that were born in the U.S., citizenship and equal protection under the laws. When Thurgood got in trouble at school, his principal would send him down to the basement where he was forced to memorize the Constitution. Cumulatively, their mentorship and disciplinary actions formed the backbone of Thurgood Marshall's evolution into “Mr. Civil Rights.”
During his career, Marshall was supported by many other mentors, including Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston was a renowned civil rights attorney and mentor to Thurgood Marshall. At Amherst College, Houston was inducted into the National Honor Society and selected a valedictorian of his class. Later he joined the U.S. Army and trained with the all-black officer’s battalion. Marshall learned a lot from Houston.
This was the beginning of a major transition for Hamilton. We often have three major transitions in life which are sometimes caused by a crisis. Angered by the way he and other blacks were being treated in the Army, Houston decided to study law at Harvard Law School and later became dean of Howard University Law School. He joined the NAACP and brought one of his students, Thurgood Marshall with him.
Houston recognized Marshall’s potential and as a mentor/mentee team, they took on cases throughout the country including a successful lawsuit against the University of Maryland Law School to end its segregation policy, a policy that had denied Marshall admittance. It was because of this policy of segregation that Thurgood Marshall ended up at Howard University Law School rather than the University of Maryland and captured the attention of Houston.Their work together, strategizing the fight for equality through the courtroom, eventually laid the groundwork for ending segregation by winning the Brown vs. the Board of Education case.
Marshall endured many adversities during his professional career, but his passion for justice was stronger than his fear of failure and fear of losing his life, which was often threatened by white supremists and segregationists. His quote, "A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks," sheds light on the fact that our life journey is filled with emotional potholes and landmines, but passion and purpose are driving forces behind our life’s work. Marshall had a lifetime passion for law, but he put purpose and a willingness to serve others as the foundational ethos for his work.
This foundation allowed him the resilience and propensity to truth that transcended bias and injustice. When he first joined the NAACP, the organization had hardly any money to pay him. Without a staff, he held down an entire law division for twenty-one years and founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Finally, in 1972 in the Furman vs. Georgia U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed the death penalty, Marshall in his wisdom and simplest words said, "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute." He felt that the death penalty was undue punishment and that even the most criminal of people were still people. By seeing the humanity of others, Thurgood Marshall honored who he really was, a soul on an evolutionary journey with lots of fertile land to grow. We can honor his example by doing the same as fellow Modern Elders.
Wanda K. Whitaker, founder of Anchored in Spirit, is a visionary artist and spiritual teacher whose purpose is to awaken others to their higher selves and greatest potential through art and communication.