Thurgood Marshall Legacy
Testimony from Within the Church
Thurgood Marshall and his family became members of St. Augustine’s in Southwest, DC when the family moved to Washington in 1965. In New York he had been a member of St. Philip’s, Harlem. Although his family attended church almost every Sunday, “the Judge,” as he preferred some to call him, did not. He did attend enough to be “respectable” about his membership, but he never equated church attendance with his being a Christian. Courts, not candles, were his milieu. Rather, his Christian faith was deep inside, and that presence of Holy Spirit within him was his plumb line. He could tell right from wrong instantaneously. His keen understanding of the place of his ministry, a ministry of the people of God, led him to the courts. There his contribution to the place of the Afro-American in our society is unequaled. Others got more press, e.g., Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but had it not been for Thurgood Marshall, segregation might still be the law of this land. The Spirit working through this man gave him an intuitive sense of justice in which he saw all of life as sacred and all persons equal before God. This same Spirit gave him a great sense of self transcendence which frequently expressed itself in humor. He could tell a “tale,” and his story telling, like Mark Twain’s, was not only funny but also had a huge sense of morality entwined. I knew him as a good man who loved to tease. He was a competitive man, and he loved to win. But, he was also a wise and godly man who knew his place and role in history and obeyed God’s call to follow justice wherever it led.
(William S. Pregnall, Former Rector of St. Augustine’s, Retired)
The prophet Amos was Thurgood Marshall’s kind of man. He was bold, caustic and candid in the most difficult of times. And although the good Justice would be loathe to mingle religious symbols with political, Thurgood Marshall was indeed a prophet in his own right, fighting for the ancient vision of God for an equitable society. We call it justice, the right ordering of social relationships and opportunities. Justice Marshall stated it simply as “getting the same thing at the same time in the same place.” Justice Marshall was an incredible man, a superior lawyer who would have been renowned as a civil rights lawyer with the most distinguished record among Supreme Court lawyers to date, even if he had not become a Justice. Of course, as a Justice he had a passionate commitment to make real the constitutional intent for all people, especially the 11th thru the 15th Amendments. All of this was grounded not simply in moral conviction, but a sense of Christian duty which was a central factor in his moral vision. He did not believe in an exclusive God. His favorite scripture text was the love text, which he understood from the Latin "caritas", i.e. a call to Divine love, which is not about warm, familiar affection, but rather a love for what God loves – justice and equity. The reading from First Corinthians 13 was chosen when he was sworn in as Justice. It again was most appropriate as part of his final message, as Readings were chosen for that great liturgy in the National Cathedral, telecasted internationally. Sadly, in some ways this marked the end of an era, where political and social passions of moral integrity and faithfulness were about constitutional inclusion. Now, in our own time, constitutional integrity is unhappily defined as constricting inclusion, defining its benefits to the interest of a narrow ideology. Lifting up his life and witness may help keep alive this "caritas" mandate of the Gospel, in religious life as well as public discourse.
(The Reverend Nathan D. Baxter, Rector, St. James Church, Lancaster, PA)