In this new assignment that I made for myself, I am setting out to discover a fuller portrait of the people celebrated in February for Black History Month. I’ve been doing this work for some time now, so I guess the difference with the current manifestation of this project involves history, subjectivity, and celebration/commemoration and not just pure curiosity. My son’s Black History Month assignment inspired me to learn more about the typical Black History Month cast. My son was charged with the task of creating a poster reflecting Thurgood Marshall’s achievements and with remembering a few broad facts that reflected Marshall’s distinction: “I am Thurgood Marshall, the first African American, Supreme Court Justice of the United States of America.” While preparing this assignment, I realized that I didn’t know much about Marshall beyond what my son claimed and the role Marshall played in arguing Brown v. The Board of Education before the Supreme Court.
Just yesterday, I finished listening to the audio version of Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, and I found it to be exceptional; mostly because I learned that Thurgood Marshall was a superhero! Marshall would literally travel into the bowels of hell (a.k.a. the American South) and come out alive and victorious after challenging terrorism and injustice against black Americans. Being a black American lawyer in the 1930s and ’40s for black clients in the South meant traveling in Jim Crow cars on trains, depending on the kindness and generosity of other courageous black Americans for food and lodging, managing persistent threats from terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan without the protection of police who were often Klansmen themselves; it was difficult work on every level. The clients Marshall served were too poor for the work to come with great financial rewards so his motivation speaks to having a life’s purpose beyond money. For Marshall, justice for black Americans and the opportunity to live fully with dignity and integrity reflected that purpose.