Justice  /  Longread

What Thurgood Marshall Taught Me

He became the first Black Supreme Court justice, and the stories he told his clerks — like me — revealed how he helped break down America’s color line.

Like that cabdriver, we’ve overlooked vital chunks of history. Most of those people nowadays who consider Marshall a hero cherish his votes on the Supreme Court. They admire him not for who he was but for his usefulness to their causes.

And he was indeed a reliable vote for broad, liberal interpretations of the Constitution on issues ranging from racial justice to abortion rights. Early in his tenure, he helped establish the modern understanding of the right to privacy, authoring the court’s unanimous 1969 opinion in Stanley v. Georgia, which upheld the freedom to possess pornographic materials for private use, a decision celebrated at the time, with a certain sexist nostalgia, as the “man’s home is his castle” case. And although in the end Marshall did not prevail, he remained until his last day on the court its leading voice for the abolition of the death penalty.

Yet there is something tragic and illiberal in evaluating other people according to their usefulness to our causes. In the particular case of Thurgood Marshall, remembering him only for his votes, or even for the remarkable success of his work as the leading civil rights litigator in the nation’s history, deprives us of the opportunity to admire the fullness of his humanity.

This June marked the 30th anniversary of Marshall’s announcement that he was retiring from the bench. And although the realization makes me dizzy, it’s been over four decades since he hired me as one of his law clerks for the 1980 term of the Supreme Court.

On and off for the next dozen years, I sat at the feet of the man his clerks used to call the Judge and listened, enthralled, to his stories. During the year I worked for him, the late afternoon was often story time, when he would settle in a convenient chair and, eyes bright with memory, share details of his extraordinary career. On later visits to the court, I would sit in his sunny, capacious office, eager to hear more. And during the last year of his life, the two of us spent a great deal of time together in the smaller upstairs chambers assigned to him upon his retirement, because he had asked me to serve as the interviewer for his official oral history for the Federal Judicial Center. Our conversations lasted countless hours but also all too few. The recordings remain sealed, but even outside the audio taping, we talked. Or, rather, the Judge talked; I listened and learned.

Marshall was among the great storytellers, heir to an American tradition stretching back to Lincoln and beyond. He told stories to teach lessons — and also like Lincoln, he never told the same story quite the same way twice. The message was what mattered.