May 17: Thurgood Marshall, Lawyer and jurist, 1993

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Thurgood Marshall was a distinguished American jurist and the first African American to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Marshall was born in 1908. He attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Pushed toward other professions, Marshall was determined to be an attorney. He was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School due to its segregationist admissions policy. He enrolled and graduated magna cum laude from the Law School of Howard University in Washington.

Marshall began the practice of law in Baltimore in 1933 and began representing the local chapter of the NAACP in 1934, eventually becoming the legal counsel for the national organization. He won his first major civil rights decision in 1936, Murray v. Pearson, which forced the University of Maryland to open its doors to blacks.

At the age of 32, Marshall successfully argued his first case before the United States Supreme Court and went on to win 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the court. As a lawyer, his crowning achievement was arguing successfully for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional and ordered the desegregation of public schools across the nation.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall as the 96th Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1967, a position he held for 24 years. Marshall compiled a long and impressive record of decisions on civil rights, not only for African Americans, but also for women, Native Americans, and the incarcerated; he was a strong advocate for individual freedoms and human rights. He adamantly believed that capital punishment was unconstitutional and should be abolished.

During his years in Washington, Marshall and his family were members of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, where he was affectionately known as “The Judge.” He is remembered as “a wise and godly man who knew his place and role in history and obeyed God’s call to follow justice wherever it led.”


I. Eternal and ever-gracious God, who didst bless thy servant Thurgood with exceptional grace and courage to discern and speak the truth: Grant that, following his example, we may know thee and recognize that we are all thy children, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who teacheth us to love one another; and who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

II. Eternal and ever-gracious God, you blessed your servant Thurgood with exceptional grace and courage to discern and speak the truth: Grant that, following his example, we may know you and recognize that we are all your children, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who teaches us to love one another; and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 34:15-22

Amos 5:10-15, 21-24 or Amos 5:10-15a, 24

I Corinthians 13:1-13

Matthew 23:1-11

Preface of Baptism

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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26 thoughts on “May 17: Thurgood Marshall, Lawyer and jurist, 1993

    • I agree. I also agree that while Marshall was a good man and by all accounts a Christian, his accomplishments were secular, not religious.

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Title: ‘Lawyer and jurist’. How about ‘Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice’? Or at least capitalize ‘Jurist’.

    Readings: Hebrew Reading – For some reason two selections from the Prophet Amos, and almost the same verses, are offered. Why not settle on one? [The Book of Common Prayer 1979 always lists the shorter reading first and then gives the longer one in parentheses. This reading from Amos does not follow that rule. IMO, HWHM should be in conformity with the Book of Common Prayer 1979’s style.] And when we do settle on one selection, I vote for the 2nd selection. It is better suited to the commemoration.
    Gospel – It doesn’t seem to fit, does it? (Phylacteries broad and fringes long. You have one teacher, and you are all students. Call no one your father on earth.)

    Collect: Every other collect I can remember uses first and last names. This collect refers to him only as: “Thurgood.” Better to include his full name. Might we consider reversing ‘brothers and sisters’ to ‘sisters and brothers’ in the spirit of Justice Marshall’s advocacy for civil rights?

    Bio: 3rd paragraph – The NAACP should be written out as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (We may not like the term ‘colored people’ but it is what it is.) Believe it or not, not every person knows what the letters stand for.
    ‘… open its doors to blacks.’ In 1936 this would not have been the word used for African Americans. And, it is not used consistently throughout HWHM (see paragraph 5 of this very bio)
    6th paragraph – what is the source of the quote? Who remembers him in this way?

    He needs a ‘He died in 1993’ statement.

  3. I have to admit to being very idsappointed in this write-up. I do not contest, for one second, Thurgoods Marshall’s role on the bench; however, this is about Holy Women and Holy Men, and there is but a mere, passing reference to his attendance at a church. It would be nice to include information that would suggest his inclusion is more than just rushing to include a liberal politician, but was instead a measured acceptance of a truly Holy Man whose faith played an integral role in the actions he took.

  4. Like the others, I have to ask what were the specifically “holy” actions of Justice Marshall. He was a great jurist and “Brown vs. Board” marks one of the great moments in American Jurisprudence, but I see little religious content. Like Tuathal & David above, it seems like this is a transparently political inclusion (not unlike Rome’s quick acting on the JP2 cult of personality).

  5. Well, while we are all called on to “seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God” how many actually are able to make meaningful improvements in justice for all? Amen Thurgood, Amen!

  6. In fairness, I should preface my comments by saying that I have admired Justice Thurgood Marshall most of my life, much more so than MLK. Therefore, I am pleased that St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in southeast Washington, DC proposed his name. Also I should say that these comments are coming from a rather lily white Episcopalian.

    As for the 50 year rule which has come up a number of times this year, it really does seem to have been waived for persons whose contributions were to civil rights or social justice. I do not know if this is right or wrong, but there does need to be some consistency, even if consistency “is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

    Justice Marshall was born July 2, 1908 and died January 24, 1993. January 24 is the date on which we commemorate the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi. So why choose May 17th? The unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was handed down on this date. This is an important political science date. Should this be the date chosen to commemorate Marshall? It seems as though we are commemorating a Supreme Court decision, not a man whose body of legal work was informed by his Christian faith.

    In fact, the fact that Justice Marshall was an Episcopalian was relegated to the last paragraph of the biography. No one can really doubt Justice Marshall’s thirst for equality and this passion for justice. But no where in the biography does it explain how Justice Marshall’s faith informed his life and work. One would assume that it must have been so given the obstacles he faced, and the hurdles he overcame, and the strength of character it took to continue the pursuit of justice and equality. His perseverance in the face of many defeats, setbacks, and stumbling blocks he faced in his life is an inspiration to many. I do not know if Justice Marshall left any writings about his faith, but if he did, they need to be incorporated into the HWHM biography. One can point to his body of legal writings and say that they are the fruit of his faith, but we all need to understand how and why this came to be.

  7. Thurgood Marshall deserves to be included because as a faithful Episcopalian, he set an example of true Christian witness in the world. A cradle Episcopalian who grew up in one of Baltimore’s historic African – American Parishes, he was a Warden of St. Phillip Church in Harlem. His dedication to justice is a testament to our Baptismal Covenant’s call to “promote the dignity of every human being”. His commitment to the legal system to reform the unjust structures of his society is a witness to one of the Five Marks of Anglican Mission (noted by MISSIO in 1996). Since Marshall was a layperson and a lawyer, his Christian witness was through his profession in the world. This kind of example (like Francis Perkins, May 13th) is an important icon of the ministry of all the baptized.

  8. I also question the waiver of the 50-year rule. (By now I’m saying, “What rule?”) I didn’t know Justice Marshall was an Episcopalian; I’m glad to learn it. Although his accomplishments were monumental, unlike other civil rights leaders (e.g., Dr. King), they do not, at least from the info in the bio, seem to have been driven particularly by religious principles. He was a great man and I’m proud he was an Episcopalian, but I’d vote for waiting the 50 years to see if we really think he belongs here.

  9. I don’t really have a problem with the inclusion of Justice Marshall, though I’m a little concerned about where we draw the line regarding waiving the 50-year rule. (I would much more lenient regarding obvious Christian martyrs — Jon Daniels, Oscar Romero, Janani Luwum, etc.) However, I do have a problem with the frequent “doubling up” in HWHM — granted, the calendar is now getting pretty full, but there are still vacant days available. If Bishop Hare and Justice Marshall deserve commemoration, they deserve their own days. I also agree that the lectionary should not dink around with the Amos selection. Let’s not imitate the RCL, which tends to be chintzy with scripture reading selections. I’m also uncomfortable with the notion that in order to be “holy” one also has to be publicly “religious” or even “churchy.” Well, at least we aren’t requiring two verified miracles…..

    • I think the sentiment that I and others are worried about is not requiring public religiousness (though there’s nothing wrong with that) for a good moral act, but rather a question of of what we expect when holding someone up as an example of Christian holiness. And for this purpose, I think we are certainly right to expect a demonstrably Christian witness. There’s where the discussion on Justice Marshall gets tricky.

      Grossly oversimplifying, we can say there are three main types of social justice leaders that we need to consider:

      1) Those who do work from explicitly Christian motivation: MLK, Mother Theresa, etc.

      2) Those who do work from explicitly non-Christian/secular motivation: Malcom X, Ralph Nader, etc.

      3) Those who are Christian but don’t make a large public deal about this. Here’s Justice Marshall and Frances Perkins.
      3a) We need to keep in mind that in some contexts, the way that they were doing good might require them to keep their Faith secret: e.g., missionaries to modern China.

      Type 1 is easy: if they are of heroic faith and witness, there’s no reason not to commemorate them. (within reason)

      Type 2 is easy as well: we have to restrict our attention to the baptized who profess Jesus Christ, no matter how morally good they might be. (Ghandi comes to mind here) This implies no judgement of their “final location” but just an understanding that they cannot be paradigms of Christian witness. And no one seems to be suggesting this except the kind folks at St. Greg of Nyssa’s and the occasional John Muir-type who seems to have slipped through the HWHM filters.

      Type 3a is also a straight shot: if it can be shown (e.g., form personal diaries, later writings) that they were motivated to their great deeds by a desire to live out their love of Christ in the public sphere, then they are fair game.

      But the rest of type 3 is tricky: I take a fairly restrictive position here myself: I want to see a specifically and emphatically Christian witness. It’s something like the discussion we had regarding the problems in the biography of the Sudanese martyrs: all it showed was that they were Christians and that they were killed — the element of Christian martyrdom was missing.

      On a practical note, I feel that the burden of proof has to be considered as well: the default should be to restrain from commemoration unless there is a compelling reason to commemorate. There are too many good folks of type 1 that we don’t commemorate to rationalize looking at type 3 folks without compelling reasons. This keeps us from rubber stamping any good bloke and diluting the power of holding up Holy Women & Holy Men. (The Lake Woebegone phenomenon if that means anything to you)

      Perhaps an example makes my point: Louis Brandeis had a career that in many ways paralleled Thurgood Marshall, but we don’t commemorate him for obvious reasons. If the fact that one got the Holy Sprinking as a child and the other didn’t is the only distinction we can make between the two as far as worthiness, then Marshall probably shouldn’t be held up as an example of a specifically Christian witness. Combating racism and loving one’s neighbor are not exclusively Christian values.


      1) The above applies only to social justice types — I’d develop very different categorizations for martyrs, theologians, etc.

      2) Some of the comments suggest that Marshall was more of a 3a type and that the necessities of legal arguments required him to keep his faith under wraps in his professional life; if this can be shown (i.e., that he was personally driven by demonstrably Christian reasons but had to make his arguments in a legal context), then we should consider commemoration.

      I’m not nearly enough of a historian to judge (no pun intended!) question 2 and I think that’s what others are trying to flesh out.

      Hope this helps and I’d love to have some feed back, but this is how I’ve been thinking about the recent slate of political commemorations.

      • Michael W. — You put a lot of thought into your comments, and it’s so plain to see they are so thoroughly your own thinking I find myself wondering if you have the print copy of HWHM. Your thinking and the template-like “Principles of Revision” in the back of HWHM (page 742 ff) overlap to a good extent. I was all set to type a bunch of them out for you, particularly those I thought you’d like most to know are there, when it dawned on me I might be overlooking the obvious, namely, that you’re perfectly well aware of them already! If that is the case, there’s no reason for me to reproduce them, even in part, as I was going to do. But, if you haven’t read them I do think you’ll find them edifying and (as they are for all of us) clarifying in various ways. If you don’t have the print edition, they are likely available online (and likely with a link on every page of the blog!) — although I don’t know where, but a “search” should turn them up easily enough with a few well chosen quotes! It’s great to see and share your enthusiasm for this “great cloud of witnesses.” –John L

  10. Re: My “50 Year” questions from yesterday (why have it – and what criteria for waiving it). I looked in the guidelines at the back of HWHM, and on p. 743, #7, labels the purpose of the 50 year rule as “perspective” — one word — no further elaboration.
    The “rule” is not so cut and dried as we seem to think . It actually says people should be
    “included … only after two generations or 50 years…since…death.”
    I reviewed the commemorations and listed those whose “50 years” exceeds the 2012 General Convention calendar year. (A few of these are already fully admitted to the calendar but I include them for convenience; the others are among those newly proposed in HWHM.)
    These reach the 50 year mark by the 2015 Convention (but not by the 2012 convention): Samuel Shoemaker, AJH Cooper, Frances Perkins, John XXIII, WEB DuBois, Jonathan Daniels, and CS Lewis.
    Eligible at the 2018 Convention: Karl Barth, Thomas Merton, MLK Jr., Albert John Luthuli.
    2021 Convention: Harriet Bedell. 2027: Janani Luwum. 2030: Oscar Romero.
    2033: Sudan Martyrs. 2045:Thurgood Marshall.
    Other than the word “perspective” no reason for the prescribed time frame was offered.
    Reasons given for waiving the prescribed time frame were noticeably less verbose than “perspective.”

    • Mr. LaVoe,
      (Responding both to this comment and to your response to my comment above)

      Thank you for your kind words. I don’t have a copy of the HWHM book but I was able to find a PDF of the SCLM Blue Book that contained the principles of which you made mention. Interesting reading indeed — I found particularly interesting the appendix which stated that they realized the Thurgood Marshall was ineligible under the 50 year rule. Even more interesting, was the resolution on p.194 of the PDF where SCLM considered waiving the 50 year rule for TM and then decided that it was inappropriate to do so. Seems like quite some miscommunication in the drafting process. 😛

      I’d like to thank you for doing the leg-work on all the names listed above; it sure gives some interesting perspective to the 50 year rule. I would hope that one of the SCLM folks could give us a little more insight into their thought process. But I’ll outline some of my own thoughts.

      “Perspective” is definitely a consideration. While I don’t think it’s such an issue with TM as it may be with others, we’ve definitely seen it prove relevant in the case of the Sudanese martyrs. More negatively, when Rome waived their 5 year wait to beatify JP2, things turned pretty embarrassing with those nasty accusations that came out only a few weeks later. While it seems quite probable that those allegations were politically motivated, it does remind us of the reality of simul justus et peccator .

      But let’s admit something: most of our “Saints” aren’t saints because they were perfect: far from it! There’s some danger of embarrassment, but perspective has to mean something deeper than just covering our bums. I’d suggest it does two things:

      1) It keeps us from falling into cults of personality: if we require that 2 generations pass and the person still seems commemoration-worthy, there’s certainly a much stronger sense of the assent of the faithful throughout history. So many of the names you identify are risky to include because we did know and love them in their lives. And it’s hard to separate that process out — particularly with commemorations by TM which are directly proposed by those who had some earthly connection with them.

      This idea seems closely tied to point #6 local observance ( cultus in theology speak). Requiring time to pass keeps the local observance from being solely the deceased’s significant other, brother-in-law, and accountant working to get a commemoration added. The time element adds a significant element to our ecclesiology: it’s not limited to those who are even alive today. Chesterton talks about the franchise of the dead and I think that really is important here. TEC leadership often seems to jump on the theological flavor of the day (from where I’m sitting) and this seems like an essential check. I read not too long ago about the proposed new UMC hymnal and one interviewee said “what do we expect young people to think when they walk into a Church and see a hymnal older than they are?” I’d suggest that this reminds us all that we are part of something that’s spread through space AND time, a lesson that’s far too easily forgotten with our constant talk of “modern needs.”

      2) There’s also a pastoral reason for the 50 year weight: many of these “prophetic witness” types were pretty controversial in their time and it’s good to let heads cool off. One timely example would be Francis Perkins: most of the comments praised her for helping to start SS but I know many people (including my own parents) who still find that to be a objectionable piece of legislation. And they are good Christians too. I know that all these commemorations are optional, but it makes it pretty uncomfortable to be in the other one of the “two integreties.”

      Little details like putting this commemoration on Brown v. Board or putting in Francis Perkins strike me as too much of a “stamp of approval” on a piece of law and that’s not what we are called to do. I fully support Brown v. Board and SS, but I’ve found both commemorations personally uncomfortable because of the still near political resonances and the implied exclusion of those who are on the conservative end of modern political debates. We can’t ignore the fact that people like TM or John 23 have political resonance in current debates.

      I know that the SS example seems pretty trivial (and it is), but consider how it would feel to be the family of one of the Sudanese martyrs, or worse — one of the persecutors — and to hear that commemoration. Certainly it would strike a nerve and I can’t guarantee it would be a good one.*

      *Of course it could evoke a positive reaction, particularly for one who lost family. But, say, for the son of one of the leaders of the persecution, it would be quite discomforting.

      3) 50 years then seems like a first attempt to strike a balance between the real danger of having someone too contemporary and refusing to acknowledge holiness in our own day (and by extension, refusing to acknowledge the third person of the Trinity acting among us). I think we could use a little more history and would suggest we raise the level — there are whole crops of medieval and reformation era saints to be explored. (But I study that period so I’m probably biased) — but there’s also something shocking about the fact that CS Lewis is still technically “out of bounds” that suggests 50 years is too long. As with so many things, it comes down to what we expect of our saints: if they are to be enduring Christian icons, then we can afford to move a little slower; if they are to inspire us to action on modern questions, we may have to move a little faster.

      But I would submit that it isn’t the duty of the saints to inspire us on modern questions — that’s the task of our Bishops, those who represent Christ and the Church of All Time to us. They carry with them the enormous responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel in the modern era and we ignore that at our own peril. The saints ground us in faith and virtue — some even believe they pray for us — but it’s spiritually dangerous to venerate them in a way that so plainly points to modern debates.

      All-in-all, I’m actually quite fond of the 50 year rule and wouldn’t mind seeing the bar raised even higher. Don’t forget: it took at least 50 years to work out the current form of the Nicene Creed after it was first ratified and another 600 for it to enter liturgical use.

      • Re: 2009 SCLM Blue Book report reference to Thurgood Marshall

        Ultimately, as I remember, Thurgood Marshall was debated by the House of Deputies for inclusion – reversing the recommendation of the Legislative Committee on the Prayer Book. So, notwithstanding the recommendation of the SCLM’s report to the 2009 General Convention, Thurgood Marshall was included. .

  11. A Guideline is not an inflexible rule, but I believe the Fifty Year waiting period is wise, and I fear that such an early entry for this deserving candidate will be viewed as “reverse discrimination”. More to the point, perhaps, is that anyone opposed to making an exception for Marshall will be inhibited for fear of being branded a racist.

    The subtitle needs to be changed. Many readers will not be accustomed to the word “Jurist”. Few folk have their own copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, let alone HWHM. It will be read to them. I suggest: “Advocate and Supreme Court Justice”

    Here again we have the “headline writer”. Delete the first paragraph.

    Line 1, second paragraph: add “Baltimore, on July 2” after “in”.

    Line 5, second paragraph: add “in” after “enrolled”.

    Line 5, third paragraph: we need to decide whether “blacks” is an acceptable alternative to “African American” (I suggest that it is), or whether the term “blacks” is to be avoided where feasible.

  12. In paragraph 3 it says: “He won his first major civil rights decision in 1936, Murray v. Pearson, which forced the University of Maryland to open its doors to blacks.”

    Perhaps that’s exactly what the case established, and if so, there’s no fault in saying it that way. I wonder, however, if the victory might have been even broader in admiting other minorities as well. If so, stating it the way it is worded here would be less than the whole truth.

    • I’m no legal expert but after a quick consult with the lawyer parent I gleaned that it’s sort of a “both/and” thing.

      Without verifying this in the records, it was suggested to me that the decision read something like: “U Maryland must admit persons X, Y, & Z because there is no legal right to bar anyone based on race.” Thus, the court’s order was to admit specific black/African-American persons but it did so by finding that all races were to be admitted, even if the fruits of that principle had to wait a few admissions cycles before being realized for other minorities who weren’t party to the suit. This was only an educated guess so if any legal historians can jump in with more detail…

      Not sure what this means for bio-writing purposes however….

  13. Thurgood Marshall, Jurist and Prophetic Witness to the justice which God requires of us all, has been celebrated in the parishes in Baltimore where he grew up and practiced law; New York where he worshiped and served both his parish St. Philip’s and the Episcopal Church as a General Convention deputy; and in Washington where, during his years as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, he and his family were members of St. Augustine’s Church. The original resolution submitted to the General Convention of 2006 came from those three dioceses, initiated by the “Marshall parishes” (Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria and St. James’ Lafayette Square), In those three dioceses (at least), the commemoration of Justice Marshall is known to have begun in 2004 and it continues annually and is spreading to other parishes. In the Diocese of Maryland it has become a diocesan celebration held at the Cathedral; of the Incarnation, Baltimore. Most recently (2014) a Thurgood Marshall Episcopal Lawyers Guild was inaugurated at the annual celebration.

    May17th was a deliberate choice of the three initiating dioceses. , though we all know that the church’s tradition is the date of death. That works for martyrs certainly but the celebration of Marshall is of a different order – his witness to justice is what commends him to our pursuit of the Baptismal Covenant’s demand that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, ad respect the dignity of every human being” For Americans (and perhaps others) that focuses us on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas” – that is what preeminently marks the break from our history of slavery, Jim Crow and continued legal discrimination of African Americans. It is the beginning of a process that brings us to this day when The Episcopal Church continues the struggle against racism.

    At the legislative committee hearing at General Convention 2009 it was noted that “we ARE the second generation.” For those of us who grew up in a “legally”” segregated society, Thurgood Marshall was – and remains – a major agent of our release from captivity.

    N.B. Could the tag be changed from “lawyer and jurist” to “prophetic witness”?
    Further note: The lessons were chosen by the Marshall family in consultation with St. Augustine’s Washington as most appropriate. There have been many questions about the choice of the I Corinthians 13 passage: it was the Justice’s favorite of all and he saw it as the ground for his work.

    (from Mary H. Miller, St. James’ Lafayette Sq Baltimore MD)

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