Thurgood Marshall’s Widow Talks of Husband’s Legacy

On the Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, 'Cissy' Marshall Laments Lack of Progress

Cecilia Marshall (second from left), Justice Thurgood Marshall (right) and their two sons (Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage)
Cecilia Marshall (second from left), Justice Thurgood Marshall (right) and their two sons (Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage)

When Cecilia Marshall looks back to more than six decades ago, she couldn’t have imagined that the battle for equal rights in schools and elsewhere would still be as vital today as they were when her husband proved instrumental in the fight to end legal segregation.

“We haven’t made too much progress,” said Marshall, 88, the widow of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the United States Supreme Court. “Sixty-three years later, we’re still fighting in the courts for equal treatment and that’s not what my husband nor I would have imagined would be going on today when he was on the Supreme Court.”

There’s little argument that the greatest achievement in the long and illustrious career of the late justice, who died in 1993 at the age of 84, was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

It came more than a decade before his appointment to the court while Marshall served as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP.

The suit had been filed on behalf of African-American parents in Topeka, Kansas. Their children had been forced to attend all-black schools.

Cecilia Marshall, Justice Thurgood Marshall’s widow (Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage)

Marshall launched a challenge to the system of segregation, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate educational facilities are “inherently unequal” and the racial segregation of public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The decision is credited with inspiring the civil rights movement that unfolded over the next decade and it also led to Marshall being recognized among the top and most successful lawyers in America.

“He accomplished so much and worked so hard, but I thought by now we would have come so much further. He would have thought that too,” said Cecilia Marshall, whom loved ones and others affectionately call “Cissy.”

Her work continues in her husband’s memory.

On the 63rd anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, Marshall and the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust plan to host a fundraising gala to observe the historic decision and to announce a call to action which she’s titled “Equal Education for All Based on the Brown Decision.”

The event will be held at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in northwest D.C.

“The problems remain and this event, this anniversary, comes against the backdrop of a significantly troubling retrenchment of access to education for African-Americans, Latinos and other children,” Marshall said.

She cited a Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights report that said there are numerous factors that appear to have combined to cause the rapid resegregation of schools since 1991, the year her husband retired from the bench.

First, beginning in the 1980s, courts turned against desegregation plans — denying new petitions to desegregate schools, ending previous court-imposed plans and even striking down voluntary plans created by local school districts, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Further, executive branch agencies have stopped the aggressive campaign to enforce the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act that proved successful in the 1960s and 1970s, the conference said.

“At the same time, rapid growth in the Hispanic and African-American population and growing income disparities have increased the concentration of minorities in high poverty districts,” said a statement from the leadership of the Council which has a diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations which promote and protect the civil and human rights of all in the United States.

Marshall plan to join the leadership of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and others at the historic event.

“The NNPA reaffirms the living legacy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,” said Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., NNPA president and CEO. “We note this month the 63rd anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that was won by Marshall’s legal genius and courage. Today, it’s important to reassert the critical importance of continuing to demand equal high quality education for Black American students and all students across the nation.”

For Marshall, she said she still gathers with the wives of former and current Supreme Court justices.

“We’re a big family, we call ourselves sisters,” she said.

Those get-togethers as well as the success of her two sons — Thurgood Jr., and John W. — serves to further validate her husband’s legacy.

“My husband enjoyed life,” she said. “Seeing his sons grow up to become adults — Thurgood Jr. a lawyer and John serving in civil service — has been a great joy. My husband gave me and all of us a great life and his favorite slogan was something we’ve always lived by and I still live by today especially when I think of the state of things in this country: never give up.”