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Reflection: Remembering Thurgood Marshall

The following is a reflection delivered by Eric Davis at the 2019 Electing Convention.
A video of this presentation is available in the 2019 Electing Convention Archive.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln spoke those words on March 4, 1865, as he was sworn in for his second term as President. Most Lincoln scholars believe that his reference to “charity for all” meant not charity as philanthropy, but “charity” in the sense of the Greek word agape, the self-giving, self-sacrificing activity originating from God that is translated in the NRSV as “love” in the lesson from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning, and is translated as “charity” in the King James Version of the Bible, the book that Lincoln probably knew better than any other volume.

Within a few weeks of Lincoln’s delivering this address, the Civil War was over, and the President had been assassinated. Within a decade, the noble Reconstruction that Lincoln wanted, the Reconstruction that would both reunite the nation and deliver real freedom to those Americans who had been held in bondage for two centuries, was replaced with what Southerners called Redemption, reversing the results of the Civil War by re-establishing white supremacy in nearly all the states of the old Confederacy.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is engraved on the walls of the north gallery inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Nearly 100 years after Lincoln delivered that address, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed that he had a dream that “one day this nation will rise up and proclaim the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” . . . that one day every valley shall be made exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

From the mountain of despair a stone of hope. In different ways, at different times, Lincoln and King, both men of a deep faith in God, a loving, liberating, life-giving God, dreamed, and wished, and exhorted for the hope that the gap would be closed between the American dream and the American reality, that Americans – all Americans – could reach across the divide – the divide between the realities of 1865 and 1963 and the aspirations set out by the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787.

In the American context – a government of laws, not of people – working to close that gap between aspiration and reality often ends up being the work of lawyers. As Frederick

Douglass argued, there was no path to racial equality that did not include political power. For African-Americans in the mid- 20th century, facing the solid white South of Jim Crow at the polling booths and in the halls of Congress and in the state legislatures, the path to racial equality and political power ran through the courts. And, arguably, no attorney working in the 20th century in the fields of civil rights and constitutional law did more to bring American practice into line with American values than the man we honor on the Episcopal Church calendar today, a lifelong Episcopalian, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall is honored at this time of the year in order to commemorate his role in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education, handed down 65 years ago yesterday, on May 17, 1954. From 1936 to 1961, Marshall was part of the legal staff of the NAACP, and headed that organization’s Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1940 to 1961. Beginning in the late 1930’s, Marshall and his colleagues began chipping away at the edifice of legally mandated segregated education in the South, beginning with graduate and professional schools and then moving on to elementary and secondary schools. In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

While Marshall is best known for his work on Brown and other school desegregation cases, his work – carried out in collaboration with many others, including another person on the Episcopal Church calendar, Pauli Murray, an attorney and the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest – encompassed many other areas of the law: voting rights, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, discrimination against the poor, and the criminal law, particularly opposition to the death penalty as both inherently incompatible with evolving standards of fair and appropriate punishment and racially discriminatory in its application.

In 1961, President Kennedy nominated Marshall for a seat on the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York City, a position he held for four years. After two years as Solicitor General of the United States, the government’s chief advocate before the Supreme Court, Marshall was nominated by President Johnson to a seat on the High Court, which he held from 1967 until he retired in 1991, at the age of 83.

Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore, and was a member of St. James Episcopal Church in that city – the same parish that included Pauli Murray as a member, and the parish where Presiding Bishop Michael Curry served as rector from 1988 to 2000.

During his years in New York City, from the late 1930s until the middle 1960s, Marshall was an active member of St
Philip’s Episcopal Church. Founded in 1809 by free African-Americans who were part of the congregation of Trinity Church Wall Street, St Philip’s is one of the oldest historically black churches in the nation, located first in lower Manhattan, then in Harlem. Marshall served on the vestry of St Philip’s for many years, including time as Senior Warden. He was also a member of the deputation from the Diocese of New York to the General Convention in 1964, while he was serving as an appeals court judge in New York City. After moving to Washington in 1965, Marshall and his wife, Cissy, were members of St Augustine’s Episcopal Church, a new parish founded in Southwest Washington, on the waterfront, in the same year Marshall took up his duties in D.C. as Solicitor General.

St Philip’s and St Augustine’s, through the Dioceses of New York and Washington, prepared and introduced the resolution approved by the 2009 General Convention through which the Feast Day of the Blessed Thurgood Marshall was added to the Church calendar on May 17.

As we reflect on the life and work of Thurgood Marshall, let us consider the catechism at the back of The Book of Common Prayer, on page 855, where we read that “[t]he ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to [Christ] wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”

Thurgood Marshall truly lived the ministry of lay persons. In both New York and Washington, he actively took his place in the life, worship, and governance of the Episcopal Church.

Using his considerable gifts – not only intellectual ability and argumentative skills, but also empathy for the people whose causes he was representing – Thurgood Marshall never forgot the named plaintiffs and defendants for whom he was speaking – Marshall used the structures of American law to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in our broken society – to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to comfort the sick, to visit those in prison. And through his work to dismantle the structures of historical and systemic racism in American society – work which he recognized required changes in the hearts and minds of women and men as well as changes in law and legislation – Thurgood Marshall – a man of deep faith – brought Americans closer to that love of which Jesus spoke – loving one’s God, and through loving one’s God, loving one’s neighbor as oneself.


Justice Thurgood Marshall
This image is available from the US Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b07878

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