The State of Aloha
More than a century ago, a schoolteacher gave birth to a boy. His parents named him after his great-grandfather, a slave who was kidnapped from Africa. He was too rebellious to be marketable for auction and sale and was emancipated.
On his birth certificate, however, there was a last-minute change to the name. He would later joke that his parents named him Thurgood instead of Thoroughgood because it was just “easier to spell.” Either way Thurgood Marshall inherited his namesake’s rebelliousness.
Thurgood Marshall is more of a legend than a man for lawyers. For close to 20 years, Marshall brought lawsuits on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to challenge legalized racism. It earned him the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights” in a time before the marches of Dr. Martin Luther King or the speeches of Malcom X.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Marshall took on apartheid case by case. First, he and his organization struck down racist covenants that barred home sales in certain neighborhoods to people of color. Then they attacked the separate-but-equal doctrine at medical and law schools. Their efforts finally resulted in the direct attack on race-based segregation in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Marshall argued the case before the Supreme Court and in 1954 the court unanimously ruled in his favor.
A little more than a year after that, Marshall married a woman from Puunene. Cecilia Suyat grew up in Central Maui. Her father, Juan, was an immigrant from the Philippines and a private mail carrier for the Puunene Post Office delivering mail to more than 6,000 Filipino families on the island. Suyat’s two children became activists. Stanley would later become assistant director of the Peace Corps.
Cecilia was 20 years old when she left Maui for New York City. She landed a job as a stenographer at the national headquarters for the NAACP. She later recalled one of her first duties with the organization was picketing a theater that was showing the infamous picture “Birth of a Nation,” the movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.
The job also introduced her to Marshall, who had had been married to Vivian Burey for 25 years. She was in poor health and died in 1955. After her death Marshall and Suyat enjoyed a quick courtship before they were married.
Suyat Marshall and her husband would later move to Washington, D.C. President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the federal appeals court bench. President Lyndon Johnson convinced him to leave the bench to become the Solicitor General of the United States, who appeared regularly before the Supreme Court, and in 1967, he made history when President Johnson appointed him to the highest court in the land. He was the first African-American to the court.
Marshall and his wife witnessed a rising backlash that began with President Richard Nixon and has never really died down. By the late 1980s, Washington honored the bicentennial of the United States Constitution with a three-year spectacle of events, speeches, and even a commemorative coin. At one point, the Chief Justice of the Court, Warren Burger, fondly called it the “miracle in Philadelphia.”
Marshall was dismayed with the fanfare. Of all the places to take a stand against this vapid patriotism, Marshall chose a convention of patent and trademark lawyers from California that had gathered here at his wife’s childhood home on Maui. From the Valley Isle, Marshall caused a stir.
It was unfortunate, he began, that the celebrations tended to “oversimplify and overlook the many other events that have been instrumental to our achievements as a nation. The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the ‘more perfect Union’ it is said we now enjoy.”
Marshall sharply disagreed. He built his career taking on the legal edifice of segregation. When he was a trial lawyer, he would travel through the segregated South with civil rights workers who put their lives on the line (and sometimes lost their lives) in the struggle to vote. It was too much for him to remain silent.
He could not “find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”
Marshall died in 1993. His Maui speech still stands as a testament against a thoughtless fawning over our original Constitution and its founders. Cecilia is 91 now. She remains an activist and proudly remains Mrs. Civil Rights. One can only guess what her husband would be saying these days.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”