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Poetic justice: Thurgood Marshall gets even: unable to attend the law school of his choice, he went on to lead the crusade against segregation.

In 1930, Thurgood Marshall a lanky honors graduate fresh from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, realized that the law school he hoped to attend did not accept black students. Though the University of Maryland School of Law was just blocks from his parents' home in West Baltimore, he decided it would be a waste of time and upsetting to even bother to apply.

Marshall went to Howard University Law School, a private school founded to educate former slaves, 40 miles away in Washington, D.C. He couldn't afford to live in Washington so he had to commute. His mother pawned her wedding ring to pay the higher tuition. Marshall graduated from Howard No. 1 in the class of 1933.

But he held a grudge against the law school, that had never given him a chance. In the tare 1970s, Marshall told an interviewer that he had dreamed about "getting even with Maryland for not letting me go to its law school."

Only a year after graduating from Howard, the 25-year-old Marshall put a newly devised strategy for fighting segregation to the test: He would net challenge the segregation law itself but attempt to show a violation of the equal rights promised to all citizens under the Constitution. He persuaded a black Amherst College graduate, Donald Gaines Murray, to apply to Maryland's law school. As expected, Murray was rejected. Marshall had Murray write a letter to the university asking why he'd been denied admission. The university responded with a letter affirming its ban on black students and Marshall used it as the basis for a lawsuit against the university.

The case went to court in June 1935, and a Baltimore City Court stunned lawyers on both sides by ruling that Murray must be admitted.

The case became a template for legal attacks on segregation in higher education and in June 1950 the Supreme Court laid down a new standard for segregated schools: They had to be truly equal--in resources, faculties, and even tradition--or the nearby whites-only school had to accept black students.

After the decision, Marshall, now head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other lawyers agreed to take a leap of legal logic and argue that any racialty separate school--from the elementary grades on up--violated the Constitution's equal-protection clause. NAACP chapters across the country offered up examples of disparities between schools, ultimately leading to the Brown case. Marshall was at the Supreme Court as the historic decision was read. He told a fellow lawyer, "We hit the jackpot."

In 1980, the University of Maryland School of Law opened a new library and named it for Marshall, who in 1967 had become the Supreme Court's first black justice. The school repeatedly called Marshall to invite him to the opening. Marshall refused to attend, and he wrote to his fellow justices: "I am very certain that Maryland is trying to salve its conscience for excluding the Negroes from the University of Maryland for such a long period of time."

If the school didn't want anything to do with the young Thurgood Marshall, he said, then he didn't want anything to do with them now. But as far as he was concerned, he had repaired the scales of injustice that had weighed against him personally.
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Author:Williams, Juan
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 8, 2004
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