10 Revolutionary Facts About Thurgood Marshall

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Before he became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was already a powerful civil rights pioneer: He argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court in his work as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the '40s and '50s. He won 29 of those cases, including landmark decisions about school segregation and voting rights. And although his name is synonymous with the civil rights battles of the 1950s, Marshall was also at the forefront of debates about police brutality, women’s rights, and the death penalty.

Over 50 years after his historic appointment to the nation’s highest court, Marshall is remembered both for his trailblazing work and for his big personality. (Justice Marshall was a devoted fan of Days of Our Lives and as solicitor general was known to “drink bourbon and tell stories full of lies” with President Lyndon Johnson.) Here are a few things to know about this civil rights hero and legal pioneer, who was born on this day 110 years ago.

1. HE WASN'T ALWAYS THURGOOD.

Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Maryland in 1908. Young Thoroughgood would eventually change his name to Thurgood. He once admitted, “By the time I reached the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that out and had shortened it to Thurgood.”

2. HE LEARNED ABOUT LAW FROM HIS FATHER.

As a child in Baltimore, Marshall developed an interest in the law when his father William, a country club steward, took him to observe legal arguments at local courts. Thurgood and his father then had lengthy discussions around the dinner table during which Thurgood’s father fought every statement his son made. Justice Marshall said of his father in 1965, “He never told me to be a lawyer, but he turned me into one.”

3. AS A YOUNG LAWYER, MARSHALL FOUGHT FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN TEACHERS TO BE PAID FAIRLY.

During his time at Lincoln University (where he graduated with honors in 1930), Marshall’s family struggled to afford the tuition. His mother, Norma, who worked as a teacher, pleaded each term with the university’s registrar to accept late payments, whenever she could scrape together enough money to pay the cost of attendance.

Marshall tackled equal pay for African-American teachers after he graduated from Howard University’s law school in 1933. Six years later, Marshall won a big victory for teachers like his mother, when a federal court struck down pay discrimination against African-American teachers in Maryland. Marshall went on to fight for teacher pay equality in 10 states across the South. And many of his most well-known legal battles were fought against discrimination in public education, like Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

4. HE WORKED A NIGHT JOB AT A BALTIMORE HEALTH CLINIC DURING SOME OF THE BIGGEST LEGAL BATTLES OF HIS EARLY CAREER.

Marshall fought to make ends meet as a young lawyer. In 1934, he took a second job at a clinic that treated sexually transmitted diseases. Marshall worked at the clinic even as he prepared for the landmark case to integrate the University of Maryland. When he moved to New York in 1936, Marshall did not officially quit his night job—he merely requested a 6-month leave of absence from the clinic, according to biographer Larry S. Gibson. But Marshall never returned to his night job. By 1940, he had become the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

5. MARSHALL RISKED HIS LIFE WHILE FIGHTING CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLES.

Thurgood Marshall holds NAACP sign with other civil rights leaders
Marshall (far right) held up an NAACP sign with other leaders from the organization (from left to right) director of public relations Henry L. Moon, executive secretary Roy Wilkins, and labor secretary Herbert.
Al. Ravenna, Library of Congress

While working for the NAACP in 1946, Marshall traveled to Columbia, Tennessee to defend a group of African-American men. Marshall and his colleagues feared for their safety after the trial and tried to leave town fast. But, according to biographer Wil Haygood, they were ambushed by locals on the road to Nashville. Marshall was arrested on false charges, placed in a sheriff's car, and driven quickly off the main road. His colleagues—who were told to keep driving to Nashville—followed the car, which then returned to the main road. Marshall said that he would have been lynched if not for the arrival of his colleagues.

6. HE WAS BOTH AN INFORMANT AND A SUBJECT OF AN FBI INVESTIGATION DURING THE RED SCARE.

In the 1950s, Marshall tipped off the FBI about communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP. But he was also the subject of FBI investigation, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI files, critics tried to connect Marshall to communism through his membership in the National Lawyers Guild, a group that was called "the legal bulwark of the Communist Party” by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Later, after he was nominated to the Supreme Court, Marshall’s opponents tried again to tie him to communism, but the FBI couldn't find any communist ties.

7. AFTER A ROCKY START, PRESIDENT KENNEDY APPOINTED MARSHALL TO HIS FIRST JUDICIAL ROLE.

President John F. Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to meet with Marshall about civil rights in 1961. But Marshall did not hit it off with the Kennedys and felt his experience on the topic was being discounted. According to Marshall, Bobby “spent all his time telling us what we should do.” Still, a few months later, Kennedy nominated Marshall to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. It took a year for the Senate to confirm his nomination, over the objection of several southern Senators.

8. PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON NOMINATED MARSHALL TO THE SUPREME COURT IN 1967, AFTER HE CREATIVELY ENGINEERED AN OPENING ON THE COURT.

In 1967, President Johnson wanted to put Marshall on the Supreme Court—but there wasn't a vacancy, so Johnson decided to do a little political maneuvering. According to the most common version of what happened, Johnson appointed Justice Tom Clark’s son, Ramsey, as the Attorney General, which made the elder Clark—who feared a conflict of interest—retire on June 12, 1967. Johnson officially nominated Marshall as his replacement the next day.

9. MARSHALL HAD TO UNDERGO AN INTENSE SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARING BEFORE TAKING HIS SEAT ON THE SUPREME COURT.

Marshall was sworn in to the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. But before he took the oath of office, he had to survive a grueling wait, as several senators from southern states worked to derail his nomination. For four days in July 1967, those senators questioned Marshall about his legal philosophy and imposed a quiz about political history, reminiscent of a Jim Crow-era literacy test. Marshall was subjected to more hours of questioning than any Supreme Court nominee before him. Finally, on August 30, the Senate voted to send him to the Supreme Court.

10. HIS LEGACY IS STILL DEBATED.

Official Surpreme Court photo of Thurgood Marshall
Official U.S. Supreme Court portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1976

Robert S. Oakes, Library of Congress

Marshall had a perfect record of supporting affirmative action and opposing capital punishment during his tenure on the Supreme Court. But he grew frustrated with the Court in the 1980s and announced his retirement in 1991. Then, in 2010, President Barack Obama nominated one of Marshall’s former clerks to the Supreme Court. During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, senators questioned her connection to Marshall and criticized his record. But Kagan speaks fondly about Marshall: “This was a man who created opportunities for so many people in this country and improved their lives. I would call him a hero. I would call him the greatest lawyer of the twentieth century.”

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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