The Maui News - - News - BEN LOWENTHAL

More than a cen­tury ago, a school­teacher gave birth to a boy. His par­ents named him af­ter his great-grand­fa­ther, a slave who was kid­napped from Africa. He was too re­bel­lious to be mar­ketable for auc­tion and sale and was eman­ci­pated.

On his birth cer­tifi­cate, how­ever, there was a last-minute change to the name. He would later joke that his par­ents named him Thur­good in­stead of Thor­ough­good be­cause it was just “eas­ier to spell.” Ei­ther way Thur­good Mar­shall in­her­ited his name­sake’s re­bel­lious­ness.

Thur­good Mar­shall is more of a leg­end than a man for lawyers. For close to 20 years, Mar­shall brought law­suits on be­half of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple to chal­lenge le­gal­ized racism. It earned him the nick­name “Mr. Civil Rights” in a time be­fore the marches of Dr. Martin Luther King or the speeches of Mal­com X.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Mar­shall took on apartheid case by case. First, he and his or­ga­ni­za­tion struck down racist covenants that barred home sales in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods to peo­ple of color. Then they at­tacked the sep­a­rate-but-equal doc­trine at med­i­cal and law schools. Their ef­forts fi­nally re­sulted in the di­rect at­tack on race-based seg­re­ga­tion in Brown v. Topeka Board of Ed­u­ca­tion. Mar­shall ar­gued the case be­fore the Supreme Court and in 1954 the court unan­i­mously ruled in his fa­vor.

A lit­tle more than a year af­ter that, Mar­shall mar­ried a woman from Pu­unene. Ce­cilia Suyat grew up in Cen­tral Maui. Her fa­ther, Juan, was an im­mi­grant from the Philip­pines and a pri­vate mail car­rier for the Pu­unene Post Of­fice de­liv­er­ing mail to more than 6,000 Filipino fam­i­lies on the is­land. Suyat’s two chil­dren be­came ac­tivists. Stan­ley would later be­come as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Peace Corps.

Ce­cilia was 20 years old when she left Maui for New York City. She landed a job as a stenog­ra­pher at the na­tional head­quar­ters for the NAACP. She later re­called one of her first du­ties with the or­ga­ni­za­tion was pick­et­ing a theater that was show­ing the in­fa­mous pic­ture “Birth of a Na­tion,” the movie glo­ri­fy­ing the Ku Klux Klan.

The job also in­tro­duced her to Mar­shall, who had had been mar­ried to Vi­vian Burey for 25 years. She was in poor health and died in 1955. Af­ter her death Mar­shall and Suyat en­joyed a quick courtship be­fore they were mar­ried.

Suyat Mar­shall and her hus­band would later move to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy ap­pointed Mar­shall to the fed­eral ap­peals court bench. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Johnson con­vinced him to leave the bench to be­come the Solic­i­tor Gen­eral of the United States, who ap­peared reg­u­larly be­fore the Supreme Court, and in 1967, he made his­tory when Pres­i­dent Johnson ap­pointed him to the high­est court in the land. He was the first African-Amer­i­can to the court.

Mar­shall and his wife wit­nessed a ris­ing back­lash that be­gan with Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and has never re­ally died down. By the late 1980s, Wash­ing­ton hon­ored the bi­cen­ten­nial of the United States Con­sti­tu­tion with a three-year spec­ta­cle of events, speeches, and even a com­mem­o­ra­tive coin. At one point, the Chief Jus­tice of the Court, War­ren Burger, fondly called it the “mir­a­cle in Philadel­phia.”

Mar­shall was dis­mayed with the fan­fare. Of all the places to take a stand against this va­pid pa­tri­o­tism, Mar­shall chose a con­ven­tion of patent and trade­mark lawyers from Cal­i­for­nia that had gath­ered here at his wife’s child­hood home on Maui. From the Val­ley Isle, Mar­shall caused a stir.

It was un­for­tu­nate, he be­gan, that the cel­e­bra­tions tended to “over­sim­plify and over­look the many other events that have been in­stru­men­tal to our achieve­ments as a na­tion. The fo­cus of this cel­e­bra­tion in­vites a com­pla­cent be­lief that the vi­sion of those who de­bated and com­pro­mised in Philadel­phia yielded the ‘more per­fect Union’ it is said we now en­joy.”

Mar­shall sharply dis­agreed. He built his ca­reer tak­ing on the le­gal ed­i­fice of seg­re­ga­tion. When he was a trial lawyer, he would travel through the seg­re­gated South with civil rights work­ers who put their lives on the line (and some­times lost their lives) in the struggle to vote. It was too much for him to re­main silent.

He could not “find the wis­dom, fore­sight and sense of jus­tice ex­hib­ited by the Framers par­tic­u­larly pro­found. To the con­trary, the govern­ment they de­vised was de­fec­tive from the start, re­quir­ing sev­eral amend­ments, a civil war and mo­men­tous so­cial trans­for­ma­tion to at­tain the sys­tem of con­sti­tu­tional govern­ment, and its re­spect for the in­di­vid­ual free­doms and hu­man rights, we hold as fun­da­men­tal to­day.”

Mar­shall died in 1993. His Maui speech still stands as a tes­ta­ment against a thought­less fawn­ing over our orig­i­nal Con­sti­tu­tion and its founders. Ce­cilia is 91 now. She re­mains an ac­tivist and proudly re­mains Mrs. Civil Rights. One can only guess what her hus­band would be say­ing these days.

Ben Lowenthal is a trial and ap­pel­late lawyer, cur­rently with the Of­fice of the Pub­lic De­fender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808sta­te­o­ “The State of Aloha” al­ter­nates Fri­days with Sarah Rup­penthal’s “Neigh­bors.”

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