New black heritage stamp honors ‘Mr. Civil Rights’

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When Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, grew up in Baltimore in the early 1900s, the city leaders proudly proclaimed it a "white city" and more than 100 black people were lynched a year.

As chief counsel for the NAACP, and during his 24 years on the bench, Marshall helped change civil rights in Baltimore and the rest of the country, a legacy that was honored with the Thurgood Marshall commemorative postage stamp unveiled Friday at York College in Jamaica.

The stamp, featuring a black-and-white photograph taken soon after Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, is the 26th in the Black Heritage series in celebration of Black History month.

"The world was waiting for Thurgood, and he was ready for the world," said State Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne, the keynote speaker at the unveiling ceremony. "No one has won more cases before the Supreme Court than Thurgood Marshall. He was known as Mr. Civil Rights."

Marshall, who died in 1993 at age 85, earned his title as a civil rights warrior as one of the most powerful lawyers for the NAACP, but he started fighting years earlier as a teenager, Blackburne said. At 15, Marshall was arrested when he punched a white man who pushed him off the sidewalk, she said.

"All these things that happen today happen because somebody else went before and blazed a trail for us," said Lily Jung-Burton, manager of the Triboro District for the United States Postal Service.

But Marshall's mother, a school teacher, instilled in him a love of learning, which would lead him to law school, Blackburne said. Marshall attended Howard University since his first-choice school, the University of Maryland, was segregated, she said. Ironically, Marshall's first case as a senior law student was a suit that got the first black student admitted to the University of Maryland, she said.

But Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka would be Marshall's most well-known victory. As an attorney for the NAACP, Marshall argued that the "separate but equal" requirement for segregated facilities was inherently flawed. He took the case in front of the Supreme Court twice before school segregation was declared unconstitutional.

"Those judges were squirming in their seats because Thurgood had them by the Constitution and they didn't want to give it up," Blackburne said.

Marshall's commitment to education was echoed in the ceremony's setting at York College, and the musical performances by the NAACP's Children Chorale and the marching band from Campus Magnet High School in Cambria Heights.

"Our colleges are the gateway to freedom and to liberty, and certainly Judge Thurgood Marshall, in leading the battle of Brown vs. the Board of Ed., opened up a whole new era in the way we educate children, especially minority children," said Borough President Helen Marshall. "Investing in education is so crucial and important."

Blackburne hopes the children who benefit from Thurgood Marshall's many victories will see his commemorative stamp and continue with the work he left, she said.

"This stamp is only important if we carry forward what Thurgood Marshall was about," Blackburne said. "Thurgood, we will not let you down."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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