Let the Law Catch Up

Thurgood Marshall in His Own Words
Edited by Cathy Cambron
ISBN 978-1-56649-4 (paperback)
Published in May 2022
MSRP $14.00
“You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

"He was my model as a lawyer . . . I took a step-by-step, incremental
approach; well, that’s what Marshall did. He didn’t come to the
Court on day one and say, 'End apartheid in America.' He started
with law schools and universities, and until he had those building
blocks, he didn’t ask the Court to end separate-but-equal. Of course,
there was a huge difference between the litigation for gender equality
in the ’70s and the civil rights struggles in the ’50s and ’60s. The
difference between Thurgood Marshall and me, most notably, is
that my life was never in danger. His was. He would go to a Southern
town to defend people and he literally didn’t know whether he
would be alive at the end of the day." – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Marshall persisted in the face of grave danger and wrested from the Supreme Court a series of stunning victories in the 1940s and 1950s that demolished the legal edifice of racial segregation in the United States. He summed up his indomitable attitude in 1969: “It takes courage to stand up on your own two feet and look anyone straight in the eye and say, ‘I will not be beaten.’” (Thurgood Marshall, speech at Dillard University, reproduced in “A Supreme Court Justice’s Warning to Fellow Negroes,” U.S. News and World Report, May 19, 1969.) His record of successful appearances before the Supreme Court is still unbroken.
With its post–Civil War amendments designed to eradicate the stigma of slavery and create equality between the races, the U.S. Constitution promised much to Black citizens, but delivered little justice. Marshall spent his career as an attorney—as, indeed, the “greatest attorney of the twentieth century,” according to Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who clerked for him—determined to make the Constitution live up to its promises. He once described his philosophy: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” (Deborah L. Rhode, “Letting the Law Catch Up,” in “A Tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall,” Stanford Law Review 44 (Summer, 1992: 1259-1265.)

During Marshall’s 1967 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, segregationist senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina had asked Marshall whether judges should stick to “what was written in the Constitution.” He replied, “Yes, Senator, with the understanding that the Constitution is meant to be a living document.” (Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 335.) On the bicentennial of the Constitution, Marshall reiterated this long-held view in one of the numerous speeches he gave during these years.
Marshall’s remark that gave this book its title—that he believed in doing what he thought was right and letting the law catch up—reflected his lived understanding of the Constitution as a work in progress. It began its life as a very defective document; after all, it countenanced and facilitated the trade in kidnapped and enslaved human beings and ratified and enforced their continued captivity. But the Constitution, like the Union, has become “more perfect” through struggle, suffering, sacrifice, amendment, argument, and interpretation. Some have given all to this effort; Marshall gave much. He retired in 1991 after a long period of declining health.
In January 2021, as Kamala Harris was sworn in to the vice presidency of the United States, she lay her hand on a Bible that had once belonged to her hero Thurgood Marshall. A courageous and brilliant lawyer and jurist, Marshall won the 1954 Supreme Court ruling ending legal racial segregation in America—a significant step in the continuing struggle of Black Americans for equal treatment in their own country. In 1967, Marshall became the first Black Supreme Court justice, and he continues to inspire decades after his death.
This accessible collection of Marshall’s own words spans his entire career, from his fearless advocacy with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and 1950s, to his arguments as the first Black solicitor general and his Supreme Court opinions and dissents. Introductions to the writings provide historical and legal context.