College President James Freedman explained why former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of the four most important African-Americans in this century in a discussion last night in the Cutter-Shabazz Hall lounge.
"I think his standing ... when history gets a little distance ... is going to be very high," Freedman said.
Freedman discussed Marshall and the current status of civil rights with about 12 students and Assistant Dean of the College Sylvia Langford.
Freedman served as a law clerk under Marshall in his first year out of law school. Marshall made his name as both a lawyer and in his 24 years as a Supreme Court justice, Freedman said.
"Justice Marshall was truly one of the outstanding legal minds of his time," Freedman said. "He was a craftsman and that's the first thing."
Freedman also discussed Marshall's "enormous personal courage" and said he had an "enormous sense of history."
Freedman described how Marshall traveled through the South as a judge and tried cases in towns where no hotels would take him in.
In addition to his work as a judge and a Supreme Court justice, Marshall "really made the Civil Defense Fund," Freedman said.
"He was essentially the only lawyer [at the Civil Defense Fund] for a period of years. Justice Marshall himself won over 20 cases" in front of the Supreme Court as a lawyer, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which called for school desegregation.
Marshall joined the Supreme Court as part of the majority of a liberal court, Freedman said, but "then the mood of the country changed and the mood of the court changed."
In the latter part of his time on the Supreme Court, he was in the minority, dissenting against a conservative bench, Freedman said.
"His dissents during those periods will one day be vindicated," Freedman said.
Marshall had an understanding of what it meant to be black and poor that no other Supreme Court justices have matched, Freedman said.
Freedman said he thinks Marshall's position in history has declined in the minds of today's youths.
"We had a function here [in Cutter-Shabazz Hall] the night Marshall died ... we had seven people here," Freedman said.
Langford said students today do not appreciate the Brown v. Board of Education case as much as people who lived in that period.
"Students at this age went to integrated schools," Langford said. "When I went to school, that was a momentous court case."
Freedman said Brown v. the Board of Education is easily the most important case of the century. He said the Dred Scott case was the most important case of the century before Brown, and he pointed out that both were racially-centered cases.
"This is a very bleak period for civil rights," Freedman said. Although he recently finished reviewing two books in favor of affirmative action for The Boston Globe, Freedman said for the most part, support for affirmative action has declined.
Freedman said Proposition 209, the measure that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or gender in state hiring and admissions to higher education, could lead to a University of California at Berkeley that is made up of predominantly white and Asian American students. The measure passed on Nov. 5 with 54 percent of Californians in favor of it.
Freedman said the proposition's language referred to preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex and ethnic origin among other things. But he pointed out that preferential treatment is given to athletes and legacies and no one suggests abolishing that preferential treatment.
Many of the prominent black voices today come from academic fields, Freedman said.
Freedman said many surveys about important people in the past century are being conducted as the century draws to a close.
One particular survey he participated in which related to his discussion asked him to name the four most important black Americans in the past century in his opinion, Freedman said.
After discussing possible choices with the audience, he said he had listed Marshall, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Toni Morrison as his selections, although he was tempted to include Roy Wilkins who served as executive director of the NAACP.