Thurgood Marshall’s Legacy in Action

By Jim Larimore, Chief Officer, ACT Center for Equity in Learning

Can one person make a difference in the lives of every American? Thurgood Marshall showed us that the answer is yes. Today, a new movie about his tremendous career hits theaters, which provides a timely opportunity for us to reflect on the lasting impact of Marshall’s consequential life.

The fact that Marshall was the first African-American to ever sit on this nation’s highest court is an admirable achievement. But his work prior to joining the Supreme Court is equally remarkable and important.

During his career as a lawyer, Marshall carved out a national reputation as a fierce advocate for individual rights. He won the majority (29 out of 32) of cases he argued before the Supreme Court, each of which created a crack in the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been established by the court’s misguided 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

The case he is best known for is representing students in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, where he successfully argued that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and “designed to keep blacks ‘as near [slavery] as possible.’”

At the heart of the case was Linda Brown, who had to walk across railroad tracks and take a bus to an elementary school for African American children – even though there was a closer school, for White children only, right near her home. It was not so long ago, just 65 years, when Linda made her lengthy commute, and today we must continue to fight for the right of each child, no matter the zip code of their birth, to receive an education that provides a pathway to success as a contributing and cherished member of our society.

Marshall argued and won this case, and in the process changed the course of American education, paving the way for the integration of schools across the nation.

As we remember Marshall’s accomplishments, it’s essential we examine how we as a country are doing in trying to form “a more perfect union.” Certainly, we cannot ignore the hateful rhetoric that has bubbled to the surface of our national conversation. The horrifying events in Charlottesville earlier this year, and ongoing rallies and protests across the country are shining a light on a side of our national identity that we cannot ignore. What’s more, many of our children are still not treated as equal, and many of our schools are lacking resources to ensure student success.

We may not deliberately separate students by race anymore, but racial and economic differences continue to be driving forces of separation and inequality. The “Condition of Education Report 2017by the National Center for Education Statistics found “nearly half of Hispanic and Black public school students attended high-poverty schools in 2014–15 compared to eight percent of white students.”

Earlier this year the Racial Heterogeneity Project issued its report on the relationship between data practices and racial heterogeneity. The project, composed of leading education researchers, was organized by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, with support from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning.

The report detailed that in the past Latino ethnic groups depicted in the U.S. Census did “not accurately account for the vast diversity of the Latin American countries represented among the Latino population in the U.S.” It went on to state that “the assumption that the Mexican American experience is the definitive Latino experience is inaccurate.” The truth is that the Latino population is diverse and evolving, as are other segments of our population. And we need to embrace and understanding this diversity in order to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to thrive, and to help our nation capitalize on the insight and strength that our diversity makes possible.

The compelling vision that Justice Marshall had for this country is what drives me and my colleagues at ACT to continue striving to achieve our mission of education and workplace success for all. It’s why we have the Center for Equity in Learning.

Justice Marshall once said, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” We cannot stop speaking out. We must protect our democracy, today and every day, in honor of Thurgood Marshall’s legacy, and each day we must pick up the responsibility we have inherited to do our part to create a more perfect union.