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One hundred years ago today, Thurgood Marshall was born. Marshall was the first African-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. And he made his name before that as a lawyer, as the lawyer who, for decades, was the architect of the drive for racial equality under law. The lawyer who argued and won the Brown versus Board of Education case ending legal segregation in public schools.
Well, now, 15 years after his death, a one-man show called "Thurgood" is playing on Broadway to sold-out audiences and standing ovations.
As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: The last time I saw Thurgood Marshall, his flag-draped casket lay in state in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Outside, the line ran as far as the eye could see. Citizens, black and white.
There was old man pushing his 100-year-old mother in a wheelchair. There were doctors and lawyers, brick layers, janitors, secretaries. There were mothers with children in hand and teachers who'd brought their students from all over the area. The crowd was quiet in their Sunday best, respectful, they've come to pay a last tribute to the man who changed all of their life.
Today, few Americans know much about Thurgood Marshall. Even 46-year-old actor Laurence Fishburne who's most famous role is as Morpheus in "The Matrix."
Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): I didn't know anything about Justice Marshall's history.
TOTENBERG: That has changed. Eight times a week, Fishburne steps out on the stage of the Booth Theater in New York and magically is Thurgood Marshall. In this one-man play, Marshall, in his '80s, has returned for a lecture at Howard University where he graduated from law school first in his class.
The Howard lecture may be a theatrical artifice, but the real Thurgood Marshall did deliver such a lecture on how life lessons had not changed that much since he first learned them from his dean at Howard Law School, Charles Houston.
(Soundbite of speech)
Justice THURGOOD MARSHALL (U.S. Supreme Court): There are people that tell us today, and there are movement that tell us, tell negroes, take it easy, man. You made it. No more to worry about it, everything is easy. But again, I remind you of what Charlie Houston said, you got to be better, boy.
TOTENBERG: Laurence Fishburne's Thurgood Marshall expands the real speech to talk about Marshall's life and times beginning with his great grandfather. Taken from Africa to be a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland, a man so stubborn and argumentative that his master finally freed him just to get rid of him.
(Soundbite of play "Thurgood")
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Thurgood Marshall) As a boy, I came to understand two things mark my family, distinctive names and extreme stubbornness. My parents named me after my grandfather, Thoroughgood, T-H-O-R-O-U-G-H-G-O-O-D. And by second grade, I got tired of writing out all those letters. I've cut it to Thurgood.
TOTENBERG: The play was written by George Stevens Jr.
Mr. GEORGE STEVENS JR. (Playwright, "Thurgood"): I think very few people realize that civil rights in the United States in the 20th century that Thurgood Marshall is the architect. We all know about Dr. King, but it's Thurgood who was down there in the '30s and '40s in the south doing these very difficult cases, many inconsiderable danger, being moved, having to sleep in a different house every night. And to use the unpleasant word, people used to say, the negro lawyer is here. And Thurgood was building piece by piece, with a cadre of wonderful lawyers, the foundation for a change in civil rights in the U.S.
TOTENBERG: The work that would change Marshall's life and the country began in earnest in 1940 when he organized and ran the NAACP legal defense fund. For two decades, Marshall directed the organization's attack on segregation and voting, public accommodations, criminal justice, and education. His clients were often poor and usually terrified. He stood up for them so they could have a chance in life.
The culmination of this effort came in 1954 when he argued and won the landmark case ending legal segregation of public schools in America. In all, he would argue 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29. Eventually, Marshall became a federal judge, then solicitor general arguing 19 more cases on behalf of the U.S. government, and then, for 24 years, he served as the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.
In George Stevens' play, this is not history dutifully consumed. Instead, it's as easy to eat as popcorn at the movies, in part, because Marshall was such a great raconteur. Stevens says Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once told him that gift for narrative even extended to the private debates among the justices.
Mr. STEVENS: That they'd be sitting in a conference, the nine justices, and it'd be late in the afternoon and Thurgood would be sitting there and suddenly he'd say, I'm going to tell you a story. And she said, he would tell us a story that took us to places that we would never otherwise have known because he came from such a different place as the other justices.
TOTENBERG: Marshall's son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., loves the fact that the play captures not just his father, but others who were part of the civil rights struggle.
Mr. THURGOOD MARSHALL JR.: Particularly, the clients whom he represented in court and to be able to bring to life those stories as well through this play is a tribute to the courage and the dedication of all those people who came together in an important time in the country's history.
TOTENBERG: Author Stevens sees Marshall's mother, who was a teacher, as the driving force in young Marshall's life. Actor Fishburne thinks it was his father who worked as a steward in a fancy white club.
Mr. FISHBURNE: You know, his father was very, very light-skinned man. He had blond hair, he had blue eyes. People sometimes mistook him for a white man. He wasn't very well educated. And his hobby was to go to the courthouse and sit in the back of the courthouse and listen to the cases, which made me think if Willy Marshall had gotten an education, he would've become a lawyer.
And with respect to fathers and sons, the greatest thing for the son is the life that the father never lived. So, you know, my feeling is Thurgood became a lawyer because his father couldn't become a lawyer.
TOTENBERG: The Broadway run for "Thurgood" has been extended to mid-August. But Fishburne and Stevens have a long-range plan for this play.
Mr. FISHBURNE: I'm going to take it all over the country from now until as long as I can.
TOTENBERG: And what is it you want people to get out of this show?
Mr. FISHBURNE: Everything. I want them to get the same thing I get out of it. I want them to get inspired. I want them to get the history lesson. I want them to get the humor. I want them to understand the importance of people like Justice Marshall, you know, that there're people like Justice Marshall sort of, it's amazing how they kind of show up when we need them.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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