Thurgood Marshall: A Sterling Mentor for My Brother
Portrait of Thurgood Marshall by Simmie L. Knox
By Daphne Muse
In 1967, my 14-year-old brother participated in an historical rite of passage that would have impact on the legal and political tenor of this nation for the next 24 years. As a student at the Supreme Court Page School (1966-1970), Lowell Vincent Muse was selected to “pull the chair” for Thurgood Marshall at his swearing in as the first “known” black Supreme Court Justice. As an Associate Justice, his judicial hand was instrumental in forging the legal landscape of the country from 1967-1991. He was appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, someone whose track record on Civil Rights would prove to be historically significant.
The pulling of the chair was part of the official ritual connected with the formal seating of justices to the bench. My parents, Fletcher Henderson Muse, Sr. and Betty Goshen Muse, were there to witness this historical rite of passage and I could feel their sense of pride beam through the telephone when they called me to recap the moment. Daddy was a “Race Man” who stood firmly for integration and momma was a “Race Woman” who believed we were about to integrate ourselves out of the growing power we had as colored people or Negroes, terms to which we were more often referred to at the time. As employees at the Department of Defense and Department of State respectively, and in his role as a private butler, my parents came to know some of the inner workings of the nation through unique and clarifying sets of lens.
Even before my brother became a page, Justice Marshall’s name and legal victories were known to us. I was ten-years-old in 1954, when Brown v Board of Education of Topeka was unanimously voted on (9-0) by the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren; a Republican. This landmark decision paved the way for integration and exponentially expanded the civil rights movement. The ruling declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation. Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government, winning more cases before the Court than any other American. Principal Maude Brown called a special assembly at Lucretia Mott Elementary School in Washington, DC to address this precedent-setting decision and spoke about what this great Negro lawyer had done “to assure” us a future complete with racial equality and justice.
My brother’s tenure as a page provided us with an even closer lens through which to see the inner-workings of the country’s judicial system. Along with running errands and documents, setting up the goose quills and inks pens and making certain that all the preparations had been completed prior to the daily convening of the court, for four years, Vincent had the daily benefit of Marshall’s astute legal knowledge, world view, wisdom and place in history.
With the unwavering dignity and intellectual clarity that was so much of part of who he was, Marshall graciously accepted Vincent’s congratulatory offering saying, “The fact that I am here does not mean I have arrived.” Future conversations in the Robing Room and his chambers focused on The Race, politics, principles and football. Vincent continues to speak of the quiet strength Marshall possessed and how his strategic actions, not his ego, reflected upon who he really was.
On the first Monday of October in 1967, by invitation from my brother, I sat in the surprisingly small chambers of the Supreme Court and watched the nine justices swoop into the court draped in their black robes and wearing the solemnity of those about to make other precedent-setting decisions. Afterwards I got to visit Marshall’s chambers, but did not get to meet him. I did get to meet Byron “Whizzer” White, a former professional football player and one of the godfathers of the NFL.
Along with the brilliant legal arguments and precedent-setting judicial decisions, Vincent engaged in some of the microcosmic moments in the larger historical record: Dashing through two feet of snow to buy popcorn from a Capitol Hill store so the justices could munch while viewing films related to pending cases on censorship; attending impromptu violin concerts in Justice Abe Fortus’ chambers’ or sitting in Marshall’s chair studying for a final exam.
In 1993, Vincent attended a memorial service held at the Court and stood awash in a flood of memories that now anchor him in his manhood. A recording engineer for NPR for the past twenty-four-years, he never aspired to be a lawyer or serve on the Court. But having Thurdgood Marshall as a mentor for four years of his adolescence helped educate and guide him to the best of what it means to be a black man in America.
©July 2011 Daphne Muse
Daphne Muse is social commentator, writer and poet. She is also the founder and Chief Visionary Officer for Grandmothers Going Global. You can read her blog at www.daphnemuse.blogspot.com.