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Black Arts and Culture

Black Struggle For Democracy Has Meant Protest & Litigation

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Litigation and civil rights mattered to Thurgood Marshall who would have celebrated his 114th birthday on July 2; but his birthday arrives on the heels of a recent Supreme Court ruling that has overturned Roe vs. Wade with a 5-4 vote.

Many women grew up seeing TV crews film Marshall carrying a bulging briefcase up the steps of the Supreme Court. But these women are well past childbearing age. They’re grandmothers and great grandmothers. So the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade’s ruling will not affect the trajectory of their lives unlike other landmark lawsuits that Marshall argued in court.

Recall how Marshall’s Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools? Remember how Marshall’s Boynton vs. Virginia overturned a misdemeanor charge against a Black student accused of trespassing because he tried to eat at a whites only bus-station lunch counter in Virginia? (This 1960 ruling that Marshall argued held that the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 already banned racial discrimination on any type of public transportation).

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country,” said Marshall, who argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 29.

The point is some are predicting more landmark cases will be overturned: The 1965 Voting Rights Act, for example. This dark line of logic reaches back to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and back to the Emancipation Proclamation.

But Marshall blazed a trail that defies such logic. Charles Hamilton Houston, one of Marshall’s mentors at his alma mater Howard University Law School once said, “Unless Black lawyers are social engineers, they are parasites.”

Perhaps those who are advancing these increasingly pessimistic scenarios are “parasites,” not “social engineers.”

They are not watching thousands of people gather in a number of cities, after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion that now outlaws abortion. Thousands have also demonstrated against the recent decision by gathering at barricades near the Supreme Court. Thousands more chanted “We will rise up!” in New York’s Washington Square, according to news reports.

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According to a statistical analysis conducted by The Associated Press, “The decision is expected to disproportionately affect minority women who already face limited access to health care. . .Surveys consistently show that (only) about 1 in 10 Americans want abortion to be illegal in all cases.”

This is the point. If you celebrate Marshall’s birthday on July 2, remember segregation was the law of the land in Baltimore where he was born in 1908. A teacher punished him in high school by forcing him to memorize the entire United States Constitution. The University of Maryland Law School rejected his application in 1930, which gave him firsthand knowledge about racial discrimination.

After he graduated with honors from Howard University Law School in 1933, he could not attract clients as an attorney in private practice. He began to work, in 1934, for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1936, Marshall moved to New York City to work full time as legal counsel for the NAACP. Over several decades, Marshall argued and won a variety of cases that overturned many forms of legalized racism.

At this juncture, it is important to notice how The United States Supreme Court actually played a crucial role in the establishment, maintenance, and, eventually, the end of Jim Crow, Marshall discovered this fact as counsel for the NAACP. He argued cases and coordinated several key victories before the Supreme Court that resulted in the dismantling of Jim Crow.

For example, Marshall argued the Morgan vs. Virginia (1946 ) case. It challenged the Virginia law that required passenger motor vehicle carriers to separate White and Black passengers.

Since Marshall’s biography shows African Americans have increasingly progressed by protesting and litigating, then Blacks must continue to use this time-honored strategy, as storm clouds gather on the horizon following the Roe vs. Wade reversal.

“Struggle is a never ending process,” Coretta Scott King once said in a trademark quote. “Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”

To illustrate how the Black Struggle started in the streets and tended to flip history in court, consider how Coretta Scott King and her attorneys watched jury selection begin in a Memphis courtroom on Nov. 15, 1999. Twelve jurors filed into court for The Martin Luther King Jr. Conspiracy Assassination Trial, which lasted about four weeks.

“You know, when you stop and rationalize this case and think, there has to be more to it than a greasy-spoon restaurant owner and an escaped convict. They could not have arranged these things,” Mrs. King’s lawyers argued in court. “They could not have done those things.”

According to the transcript, Mrs. King’s lawyers argued in a closing statement, “We know that there was a conspiracy here, we know that they didn’t intend for Dr. King to go to Washington to march, and we know that the United States government, the FBI and the Memphis Police Department and other government agencies. . . were involved in this case, and that’s the type of verdict that I would ask you to consider.”

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Mrs. King held a news conference on Dec. 10, 1999, after the nearly four-week trial ended. They became the first jury to hold someone responsible for playing a role in the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Jurors ruled that Loyd Jowers and “others, including government agencies” participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King. (The convicted gunman James Earl Ray died of liver cancer in prison in April 1998).

Mrs. King held a news conference after the jury announced its verdict. Mrs. King sat at a table with a view of Dr. King’s crypt behind her, surrounded by her four children. She and her children made it clear that they now consider the case closed.

The ”most incredible coverup of the century” has now been exposed, said Dexter Scott King, one of Dr. King’s four children.

“We know what happened,” Mrs. King’s son said. “This is the period at the end of the sentence. So after today, we don’t want questions like ‘Do you believe James Earl Jones killed your father?’ I’ve been hearing that all my life. No, I don’t. This is the end of it.”

Years later, Mrs. King told a Guardian reporter that she was actually a civil rights protester, who became the wife of Martin.“I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner,” she explained, One minute, she is “the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label.”

If you celebrate Marshall’s 114th birthday on July 2, let your thoughts wander but linger on Attorney Ben Crump, perhaps the most well recognized Civil Rights Attorney among the fighting today’s racially charged cases. He has won financial settlements in about 200 police brutality cases, including a $27 million settlement for George Floyd’s family in the well-publicized Minneapolis case.

Crump has won over 200 cases relating to police brutality, with his firm earning a third of each settlement. He has won settlements for the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and George Floyd, as well as the people poisoned during the Flint water crisis.

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Justice Thurgood Marshall

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