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        All his life, it seemed, he’d been staring out the windows of trains rumbling toward the unknown. Again, he was seated in the Jim Crow coach, hitched directly behind the engines, where the heavy heat bore the smell of diesel. Still, the lawyer sat proud in his smart double-breasted suit, a freshly pressed handkerchief dancing out of his pocket, as the haunting Southern landscape of cypress swamps, cotton fields, and whitewashed, tin-roofed shanties flickered by. Traveling alone, he hunched his six-foot, two-inch frame over case files; a cigarette dangling from his lips, he scribbled some notes on a yellow legal pad. He would rewrite the draft before he typed it up later; he worked meticulously. A federal clerk once told him that with just one look at the smudges or erasures on a lawyer’s pleading he’d know if it was written by a white man or a Negro. It was a remark Thurgood Marshall never forgot. In cases like his there was too much at stake for him to be filing any “nigger briefs.”
        The trains he rode bore grand names like the Orange Blossom Special, the Silver Meteor, and the Champion, and their rhythms ran in Marshall’s Baltimore blood. Both his father, Willie, and his uncle, Fearless, had been porters on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and to help pay for college, young Thurgood himself had worked as a waiter in a B&O dining car. The railroads were for him and his family a source of pride, and status, but trips like these, riding alone, they also summoned in Marshall an old sadness. His wife, Buster, unable to bear the children he had longed for, had one year for his birthday given him the electric train set she had hoped someday to present to her husband and their son. With the train, and with an engineer’s hat perched atop his head, Marshall entertained the boys in their Harlem apartment building instead.
        By the mid-1940s, Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave named Thorney Good Marshall, was engineering the greatest social transformation in America since the Reconstruction era. He had already devoted more than a decade of his career to overcoming the “inherent defects” of a Constitution that had allowed, by law, social injustices against blacks, who had been denied not only the right to vote but also equal rights and opportunities in education, housing, and employment. With his far-reaching triumphs in landmark cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall would indeed redefine justice in a multiracial nation and become, as one civil rights pioneer described him, the Founding Father of the New America.
        Before achieving those victories, however, Marshall fought countless battles for human rights in stifling antebellum courthouses where white supremacy ruled. Neither judges nor juries in the Jim Crow South had much interest in Marshall’s nuanced constitutional arguments. To Marshall, the representation of powerless blacks falsely accused of capital crimes became his opportunity to prove that equality in courtrooms was every bit as vital to the American model of democracy as was the fight for equality in classrooms and in voting booths.
        On Marshall’s journeys, when the moon lit the passing landscapes of the South, he customarily drank bourbon, and he enjoyed the company of the night porters—they’d joke and talk together in segregated cars atop suitcases and the occasional casket. Or, sitting in the coach car, Marshall would drift in and out of sleep to the lullaby of the locomotive, its plaintive cry announcing every crossing as it rolled onward, southward, closer and closer to benighted towns billeting hostile prosecutors, malicious police, and the Ku Klux Klan. In the rhythm of the rails came the whipping of the wind as again the dream descended on him, and in the wind the massive black flag unfurled outside the offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and as a pall fell over Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, he read again the message, in stark white letters on the flag’s flapping black field: “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.”
        The photographs were always horrifying: shirtless black victims, their bodies bloodied, eyes bulging from their sockets. Of all the lynching photos Marshall had seen, though, it was the image of Rubin Stacy strung up by his neck on a Florida pine tree that haunted him most when he traveled at night into the South. It wasn’t the indentation of the rope that had cut into the flesh below the dead man’s chin, or even the bullet holes riddling his body, that caused Marshall, drenched now in sweat, to stir in his sleep. It was the virtually angelic faces of the white children, all of them dressed in their Sunday clothes, as they posed, grinning and smiling, in a semicircle around Rubin Stacy’s dangling corpse. In that horrid indifference to human suffering lay the legacy of yet another generation of white children, who, in turn, would without conscience prolong the agony of an entire, other race. “I could see my dead body lying in some place where they let white kids out of Sunday School to come and look at me, and rejoice,” Marshall said of the dream.
        Seventeen-year-old Norma Lee Padgett had that look—chin held high, lips pursed—when in her best dress she slowly rose from the witness box to identify for the jury the three Groveland, Florida, boys whom she had accused of rape. Like the “sworn truth” of the fictitious Mayella Ewell, the white teenage accuser in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Norma Lee’s dramatic testimony against the Groveland Boys tore a county apart. Her pale index finger extended, it dipped from boy to boy as she spoke out each name, like a young schoolteacher counting heads in class, and her breathy cadence sent a chill through the courtroom.
        “ . . . the nigger Shepherd . . . the nigger Irvin . . . the nigger Greenlee . . .”
        And like Harper Lee’s heroic lawyer, Atticus Finch, Thurgood Marshall found himself at the center of a firestorm. It would bring the National Guard to Lake County, Florida, where mob violence drove hundreds of blacks from their lives in Groveland, and in the aftermath it would prompt four sensational murders of innocents, among them a prominent NAACP executive. Despite the fact that Marshall brought the Groveland case before the U.S. Supreme Court, it is barely mentioned in civil rights history, law texts, or the many Thurgood Marshall biographies. Nonetheless, there is not a Supreme Court justice who served with Marshall or a lawyer who clerked for him that did not hear his renditions, always colorfully told, of the Groveland story. The case was key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer, willing to stand up to racist judges and prosecutors, murderous law enforcement officials, and the Klan in order to save the lives of young men falsely accused of capital crimes—even if it killed him. And Groveland nearly did.
        By the fall of 1951, Marshall had already filed and had begun trying in lower courts what would become his most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, when he was again riding the rails toward Groveland. It was on such a journey to the South that one of Marshall’s colleagues noticed the “battle fatigue” setting in on the lawyer. “You know,” Marshall said to him, “sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.” Battling personal demons as well as the devils who brought bullets, dynamite, and nitroglycerine into the Groveland fray, the lawyer saw death all around him in central Florida. So intense did the violence in Groveland become that, on one of Marshall’s visits, J. Edgar Hoover insisted that FBI agents provide the NAACP attorney with around-the-clock protection. Usually, though, Marshall negotiated Florida alone, despite the number of death threats he daily received.
        A fellow NAACP lawyer thought of Marshall as a “suicidal crusader,” because he involved himself in such explosive criminal cases in the South at an exceptionally crucial time in the history of the blacks’ struggle for equal opportunity. Suicidal or not, Marshall in the mission of the burgeoning civil rights movement was unquestionably irreplaceable. And Marshall’s colleague too got swept up in the enthusiasm and commitment. “Thurgood says he needs me,” the NAACP associate told his wife. “If he needs me, I’m going. If I get killed, I get killed. But I gotta be on that train . . .”
        Marshall would later say, “There is very little truth to the old refrain that one cannot legislate equality. Laws not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men—some men, anyhow—for good or evil.” Thurgood Marshall might never have spoken those words if he hadn’t defended the Groveland Boys. The case made a lasting impact on both him and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. It also became the impetus behind the NAACP’s capital punishment program, which eventually led to the Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment was unconstitutional as well as to the Court’s later decision to invalidate the death penalty for rape.
        The victories came only after many train rides to towns where no hotels or restaurants accommodated people of Marshall’s race. Local blacks would welcome him, though, with hospitality and tears of gratitude. They’d clean their houses spotless for his stays. He’d join his hosts at their dinner tables and tell them stories from his travels that brought laughter to the night. He’d eat their modest offerings of salt pork and poke salad with such aplomb you’d think he was dining on his favorite she-crab soup over drinks with friends back in Harlem. The women would have lunches packed and delivered to him at court each day. Broken-down cars would get “glued together” to taxi him back and forth. Later in the day, word would spread: “Men are needed to sit up all night with a sick friend.” You’d hear it whispered everywhere. They’d all know what it meant. They were lining up armed guards to keep Marshall safe from night-riding Klansmen while he slept.
        Alice Stovall, Marshall’s secretary at the NAACP, recalled the effect Marshall had on blacks when he showed up at courthouses in small Southern towns. “They came in their jalopy cars and their overalls,” she recounted. “All they wanted to do—if they could—was just touch him, just touch him, Lawyer Marshall, as if he were a god. These poor people who had come miles to be there.”
        Southern juries might be stacked against blacks, and the judges might likely be biased, but Thurgood Marshall was demonstrating in case after case that their word was not the last, that in the U.S. Supreme Court the injustice in their decisions and verdicts could be reversed. He was “a lawyer that a white man would listen to” and a black man could trust. No wonder that across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruins of mob-torched homes, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope:
        “Thurgood’s coming.”
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Gilbert King

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