Remembering Thurgood Marshall

A Sermon Preached May 15, 2011
by the Reverend Bruce A. Eberhardt

Eternal God, as we remember this day your servant Thurgood,
teach us that the men and women around us are our brothers and sisters,
and fill us with such love for them that we will
never wrong them, or exploit them, or take advantage of their weakness.
Grant us the vision to see that only justice can endure,
and that only in being just to one another
can we make our lives acceptable to you.

Probably the most difficult aspect of retiring from the parish ministry is the task of leaving your parish and finding a new community in which to worship, to find fellowship and to serve. In the case of Janet and me, when we retired in 1997 we had been at the Church of the Nativity in the Diocese of Washington for 20 years. It was very hard to just walk away from so many friends whom we had known for so long.

But we were very fortunate - we began attending St. Augustine's in Southwest DC and thereby found a wonderful parish to call home. Janet served several terms on the Vestry and I was busy supplying and teaching. We also felt fortunate to happen to have landed in the parish where Thurgood Marshall and his family had been members since 1965. Justice Marshall had died in 1993 but his widow, Cissy, was still very active and their two sons often visited with their families.

It turned out that we also were in the right place at the right time for in 2005 a decision was made by several of us to get Thurgood Marshall into the liturgical calendar of the church. Janet and I, because we 'knew the system' and were retired, had the time to take the assignment of leading the effort. I don't want to go into a lot of detail -- nor would you want me to! - but basically there were several steps to be followed. We had to fulfill one guideline of the Commission on Liturgy and Music which was that there should be local observances remembering the candidate being nominated. We did this extensively throughout the Dioceses of Washington and Maryland, and then with allies throughout the national church.

Another guideline of the Commission was that a generation should have passed before a candidate could be considered. We were determined not to wait until 2043 to remember the enormous world-change that Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP colleagues created - and we were successful. The last requirement is well underway towards being met. When our General Convention meets in 2012 it will be the third and final vote on including Thurgood Marshall as one of the Holy Men of the church. He will never be spoken of as Saint Thurgood but he will undeniably be a saint of the church.

I learned a lot about Thurgood Marshall in my twelve years at St. Augustine's. Through the kindness of Cissy Marshall I have studied a lot of resources and had many conversations with Cissy that have revealed a great deal about this remarkable man. I've learned that he preferred the term 'Negro' to either 'black' or 'African American.' He believed Negro was a noble term for a noble people. I've also learned from Bill Pregnall who was Rector of St. Augustine's from 1970 to 1973 that Justice Marshall liked to be referred to as The Judge. I've also learned from innumerable sources that the Judge was a great story teller. I want to say more about that but first, in keeping with the spirit of the Judge, I'd like to start with a story . . . .the story of The Mean Spirited Man, His Mule and His Wife:

There was a man who just seemed to know very little about kindness and love. He had a mean spirit and seemed to take great delight in annoying people. He would say and do things just to annoy people. And he did that with his mule also. He mistreated his mule something awful - overworked him and beat him badly. Finally, one day the mule had had enough-- he reared up and kicked the man to death! At the man's funeral, the minister noticed that when the men went by to offer their condolences, the widow would always nod; when the women spoke to her she would shake her head vigorously. After everyone had left, the minister asked her about it. The widow told the minister that when the men greeted her they asked her to please call on them if there was anything they could do to help, and she would nod and thank them. When the women spoke to her she shook her head and told them, "No, the mule is not for sale!"

If the Judge had told this story, it undoubtedly would have been a true story, and it would have been the case that he had known the couple, and probably had defended the civil rights of the mean spirited man in South Carolina. In addition, in telling the story, as he did so often in Supreme Court conferences with the other Justices, the Judge would have found an instructive way to harness the mule for justice!

David Wilkens, a professor at Harvard Law School and former clerk of the Judge's, tells this as one of his favorite stories told by the Judge:

Sometime during the reign of 'separate but equal,' one of the major religious denominations decided to make a charitable donation to help, as the Judge would say, "the poor little Negroes of New York." After much discussion, the church leadership decided that the donation would take the form of giving one of the major Negro churches a piece of land in Manhattan to be used for the construction of a cemetery for people of color, there being as much segregation after death as before. Unfortunately, when the announcement of the gift was made with much fanfare in the New York press, the residents of the all-white neighborhood where the land was located immediately made it clear that they had no intention of allowing the plan to go forward. As the Judge would say, having successfully protected themselves against having any live Negroes in their neighborhood, they were damned if they would be forced to live next to dead ones! For years the neighbors used every legal means to delay and oppose the deal. Finally the church decided to just wait for times to change.
Then one day a white man came to the Negro church representing a major developer who wanted to buy the church's land. After some brief negotiations, the church agreed to sell the land at a price that not only would allow it to purchase land anywhere in the city for a cemetery, but also pay off the mortgage, repair the building, and generally do just about anything else it wanted. Bellowing with laughter, the Judge would report that the moral of this story was simple: 'Thank God for Prejudice!'

The Judge not only had a keen eye for injustice, he had a keen eye for the ironies of human relationships. He never lost sight of the potential for triumph or redemption, even in the bleakest hour. His opinions paint the realities of oppression and suffering with vivid sharpness. He does not allow anyone to shrink from the consequences of his actions, but his opinions always held out the possibility of hope. The Judge was someone so in touch with the common man that he could eloquently articulate the yearning of men and women for decent housing, a minimum standard of living, quality education, and the myriad other prerequisites for a full and meaningful life.

It was hearing the powerfully narrated story of the stultifying effect of a million ordinary indignities and casual slights, as much as any overarching theory or principle, which persuaded the Supreme Court that separate could never be equal. The Judge, with his ability to understand and relate everyday experience, was the perfect man to present this narrative to the Court.

Keep in mind that the Judge was born in Baltimore in 1908. Twelve years earlier, a Negro named Homer Plessy challenged the state law in Louisiana which assigned Negroes and whites to separate railway cars. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court stated that racial instincts were real, that the white race was superior to the Negro race, and that a legislature could establish 'separate but equal' facilities to ensure the separation of the races in social settings. In the very year the Judge was born, the high court ruled in Berea v. Kentucky that it was within the power of any state to outlaw even voluntary integration. And in 1930, the Urban League named Baltimore, the Judge's hometown, the most rigidly segregated city in the country. Yes, the Judge knew all about the evils of racism.

One of his former law clerks recalls that the Judge's arrival at the Supreme Court in 1967 changed more than the complexion of the men sitting around the Friday conference table. He changed the nature and the focus of the debate, both because he was at the table and because he spoke from the heart for the humble people who could not be there to speak for themselves. As the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a political environment with increasing hostility to the cause of individual rights and liberties, he never lost faith in the fundamental decency of women and men of goodwill or the integrity of the Constitution. Even in dissent, the vigor of his arguments and the unyielding language of his opinions left no doubt as to his commitment. Whether the issue was equal opportunity in education, housing or employment, the death penalty, women's rights or religious freedom, his words confirmed that he was indeed the conscience of the Court and the broader American population.

Of all that I have read about the Judge, I think the most perceptive and penetrating analysis has been written by Paul Gerwitz, a professor at Yale Law School who said,

Justice Marshall drew the strength to be defiantly hopeful from his belief in the logic and the fairness of the Rule of Law. He grew up in a ruthlessly discriminatory world - a world in which segregation of the races was pervasive and taken for granted, where lynching was common, where the black man's inherent inferiority was proclaimed wantonly and widely. Justice Marshall had a heroic imagination, the capacity to believe that such a world was possible, the strength to sustain the image in the mind's eye and the heart's longing, and the courage and ability to make that imagined life real.

Within the church we would call that heroic imagination a Baptismal Imagination. For the Church, when it is most faithful, generates a spiritual advantage - an adventure of memory and imagination which engages the world with love by taking the risk of entering the struggle for change. And that is why we remember Thurgood Marshall this day in a Eucharistic setting - thankful that his life can enrich our own search for hope.

My wife, Janet, worked with me on developing material on the Judge for our resolution to our Diocesan Convention. She came across a poem by a wonderful DC poet and friend of ours named Sistah Joy, which I am going to adapt in closing this sermon:

Thurgood changed a world,
by stirring the souls and empowering the spirits
of conditioned Negroes.

Thurgood changed a world
by confronting the conscience of hypocrites
and challenging the presumptions and
practices of racists.

Thurgood changed a world
by demanding accountability from political and
spiritual leaders.

Thurgood changed a world
by learning to love, believe in, and cherish all human life,
enabling the evolution of a people
to become the revolution of equal, not separate.

Thurgood changed a world
teaching that equality is borne through integrity and law
and that for equality to have meaning,
both must be maintained
yes, by the persistent pursuit of justice.

Thurgood changed our world - thanks be to God. AMEN.