Commentary

Thurgood Marshall’s legacy: Equal justice matters

thurgoodmarshall1967This month marks what would have been the 107th birthday of the late United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Given our long struggle for equal justice in America and the need to continue to press forward to ensure freedom, justice and equality for all, it is important to reflect on the key principles upon which Thurgood Marshall achieved his monumental success.

The mounting cries for justice from Black Americans, Latino Americans and from others denied equality and freedom deserves not only to be heard, but to be acted on by those that have the power to change America for the better. One of the enduring legacies of Thurgood Marshall was to challenge and change laws that would make our democracy more fair and equal.

After all the flag waving and boisterous patriotic proclamations that accompanied the recent Independence Day celebrations, the undisputable truth is racism and racial injustice prevail in every region of the nation. “Black Lives Matters” is more than simply a protest slogan or popular social media hashtag. It is an affirmation that all the lives of Black Americans, as well as the lives of all people, are not to be diminished or extinguished by the ignorance and acts of racial hatred and bigotry.

Thurgood Marshall said, “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.” Marshall was right. The ideology and practice of White supremacy continues to be a deadly contradiction of an America’s professed ideals and affront to all humanity.

Racially motivated police brutality, racial terrorism against Black Americans, resurgence of the mindset that rationalizes the Confederacy, voter suppression, mass incarceration, miseducation, and the growing economic inequalities all point to the urgency for a sustained long-term equal justice movement. Consequently, equal justice also matters.

One of Marshall’s most profound public addresses was in 1987 to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial. He stated, “What is striking is the role legal principles have played throughout America’s history in determining the condition of Negroes. They were enslaved by law, emancipated by law, disenfranchised and segregated by law; and, finally, they have begun to win equality by law. Along the way, new constitutional principles have emerged to meet the challenges of a changing society. The progress has been dramatic, and it will continue.”

Again, Marshall was on target. Today, Congress needs to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that requires political subdivisions with a proven history of racial discrimination to pre-clear any proposed election law change with the U.S. Attorney General or a district federal judge in Washington, D.C. to avoid injury to voters of color. The Supreme Court invalidated that provision two years ago by a vote of 5-4 and activists have been pressing Congress to undo that damage. All citizens of the United States should have the equal right to vote in every state without racial discrimination and without the voter suppression measures that many states are now engaging.

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of having a discussion with Cecilia Suyat Marshall, the devoted widow of Justice Marshall, at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington, D.C., where my employer, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), maintains its national office. We briefly reflected on Justice Marshall’s worldwide contributions to advance the cause of equality and freedom. Equally important, we discussed the continuing struggle to define, extend and maintain constitutionally-protected civil and human rights to all people in the United States.

What became clear in our conversation was that each generation of African Americans, as well as others, has a responsibility to continue the quest for equal justice. It is a matter of principle. It is also a matter of faith and belief in the oneness of God and in the oneness of humanity.

I am encouraged by the youth of today who are marching anew and are raising their fists to boldly insist that “Black Lives Matter.” There can be no justice for anyone without equal justice for all. This is the legacy of Justice Marshall: “Equal Justice Matters.”

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at: dr.bchavis@nnpa.org; and for lectures and other professional consultations at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc

August 3, 2015
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