Celebrating peace, literature, and the life of Thurgood Marshall

In Dayton, the weekend of Nov. 19-20 was very much about the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes — and in many ways, it was also a celebration of the life of Thurgood Marshall. And for good reason.

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of Marshall’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court. President Lyndon Johnson made that appointment in 1967, making Marshall not only the first African-American to be named to the court but the first appointment of any person who was not an “old white guy,” and that’s taking into account all Supreme Court appointments going back to George Washington.

It’s hard to imagine a person more qualified to serve on the Supreme Court than Marshall. Wil Haygood (the author of “Showdown,” the award-winning book on Marshall’s confirmation hearings) argued that Marshall was the greatest appellate lawyer in U.S. history and who, coincidentally happened to be an African-American. The facts support that claim. Prior to his appointment, Marshall personally argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them, including the momentous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that ordered school desegregation in the United States be terminated “with all deliberate speed,” as the Supreme Court famously said.

In a collaboration between the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the University of Dayton School of Law, Marshall’s life was celebrated as part of the James J. Gilvary Symposium: “Justice on Trial: Stories of Race & Law.” Gilbert King (the author of “Devil in the Grove,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Marshall’s courageous trial defense work, which also was non-fiction runner up for the Dayton prize in 2013) talked about Marshall’s early life, how he was refused admission to the law school at the University of Maryland because of his race and how through the guidance of Dean Charles Houston at Howard Law School, Marshall established the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It defended many African-Americans against trumped-up charges of rape and murder when, in the context of a deeply flawed criminal justice system in the South, a life sentence was a victory compared to the more common death sentence or pre-trial lynching.

At the same time, he was setting up the strategy for challenging the “separate but equal” educational system that was firmly entrenched in the Jim Crow laws. His presentation to the Supreme Court was not just a simple legal theory of equality; it was a complete examination of the factual and social consequences of a system that masqueraded permanent repression under the guise of “separate” opportunity. America’s school systems at that time were disgraceful. Thurgood Marshall won that case, 9-0, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing the opinion.

In his presentation at UD Law School, Wil Haygood — who also emceed the Literary Peace Prize ceremony on Nov. 20 — emphasized the importance of race in the United States, praising presidents Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama for their ability to understand the situation in all its complexities. Each of those presidents took courageous stands to advance the cause of African-Americans, often amid a culture of brutality and terrorism that proponents euphemized as “paternalism” and “protectionism.”

LBJ strongly believed in Marshall’s ability and talent to use the courts to change society. I believe history will show that Thurgood Marshall should be revered for his ability to use the law to elevate people while others used the law to subjugate them.

I was especially taken by the cameo appearance at the Gilvary Symposium of Alan Bomar Jones, who brought Thurgood Marshall to life with a rousing preview of his starring role in “Thurgood,” a one-man play about the life of Marshall that will be staged in Dayton next April by the Human Race Theatre Company.

It was a day that captured a snapshot of Marshall’s life and did so with the talented story-telling of Gilbert King, Wil Haygood, and Alan Bomar Jones as they put a spotlight on his life and did so with such literary elan and theatrical style. I heard Julie Gilvary say how proud her late husband, Judge James Gilvary, would be to see that his legacy enabled those stories of race and law to be shared with the Dayton community. Collectively, they honored Thurgood Marshall as an American hero who devoted his life and career in a fight for education and justice. Let the celebration begin.

Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is one of our regular community contributors.

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