The Thurgood Marshall Generation

The long legal legacy of the subject of the new film "Marshall"

Thurgood_Edited.jpgLast weekend, "Marshall," a biopic about the early years of NAACP civil rights attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), opened in theaters nationwide, and it brought to mind the many times the legal legend has come up in the pages of our magazines--not to mention in the lives of the attorneys on our list.

A few attorneys actually got to meet the man. Charles S. Johnson III's grandfather was the president of Fisk University, and, growing up, he says, "It was nothing to see Thurgood Marshall in my grandfather's living room." As a college student, Maryland attorney Paul Mark Sandler met then-U.S. Solicitor General Marshall, and received a lesson in how a moot court question before Brown v. Board of Education helped Marshall answer the real thing a day later. "I'll give you some advice, young man," Marshall told him. "If you ever become a lawyer, you remember how important it is to do moot court sessions before your cases."

Gregory Diskant, who clerked for Marshall during the 1975-76 Supreme Court session, remembers how the Justice would come into the clerks' room in late afternoons:

He was a big man, over six feet tall and very heavy, and in those days he was a chain smoker, and he would plop himself down in his chair and tell stories. Clerks from other chambers would come down and sit on the floor and listen. They [were about] his father, a Pullman porter; law school; his early days practicing law in Baltimore for the Baltimore Afro-American. He told stories about his life being in danger in the South, about defending blacks accused of rape or violence.

Those stories were what Indiana civil rights lawyer Ryan K. Gardner read about during college: "How Thurgood Marshall traveled to court hearings with his portable typewriter, drafting brilliant briefs with the most meager of resources. Times were much harder, and even more dangerous, then."

For many on our list, Marshall was the reason they went into law.

Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta since 2010, was reading an encyclopedia as a child, "And there was that picture of Thurgood Marshall in his robe, and he looked so important," he says. "I learned that he went to Howard University, so that was the first time I heard of Howard. My parents and I talked about just how important he was in my life, in the lives of all Americans. I remember how much my parents respected Thurgood Marshall, and that made a lasting impression."

"I place Thurgood Marshall ahead of [Martin Luther] King," Lembhard Howell told us in 2010. "He was the general that led a judicial civil-rights revolution in this country, removing the 'separate but equal' doctrine from the constitutions of 22 states. He had far more effect than most presidents. ... He personified the lawyer as an architect of progress."

Others know Marshall was the reason they got the education they did.

The older siblings of Baltimore criminal defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell attended all-black schools, but when Ravenell was in fifth grade the state of South Carolina, where he grew up, finally dropped "separate but equal." "Thurgood Marshall was at the forefront and I was amazed at what he had done," Ravenell remembers. "I thought, 'I want to do what that man is doing. I want to be a lawyer.'"

Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump has a similar story about when integration came to North Carolina and he was bused across town: "I knew the reason we got to go to that school was because of Thurgood Marshall," he says. "And I said at that point: I want to be like him. I want to be like Thurgood Marshall because I want to help my community."

Crump has since become the attorney for Trayvon Martin's parents, who make a powerful cameo at the end of "Marshall."