“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
Perfectly said, Justice Marshall.
Many of you know that I am an attorney. I went through the fiery sands of the LSAT, law school (for which I will be paying off student loans for a couple more decades), and the ultimate test that is the Bar exam (two of them actually). And some of you may know that I am also a classically trained journalist.
But what many may not know is that my second undergraduate Bachelor’s degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Black Studies. So when I finally made it back to D.C., after about a decade, there were some things I needed to do. Some sites to see.
The Supreme Court…And History in the Making
I caught a redeye from LA to D.C. Since the rest of my party wasn’t getting in until around noon, I had a couple of stops on my itinerary before then. I had a great breakfast with an old college friend and then headed to the Supreme Court.
My timing was impeccable. As my Uber pulled up, we noticed a swell around the Courthouse. Camera crews and protestors. My mind was reeling. “The decision isn’t supposed to come down until next week, right?” “It’s not today, right?”
Wrong. It was that day. That’s right, I arrived at the United States Supreme Court just as the historical marriage equality decision was handed down. Just as I stood staring at the Courthouse, committing the scene to my memory, the attorneys and parties came out of the Court, down the steps, and the crowded erupted into cheers. It was electric.
After the initial swell of the crowd died down, I headed into the Court to look around. As soon as I walked in, I stopped for a moment. To take it all in. This was my first time to any Supreme Court, let alone SCOTUS. I had to process it all.
As an attorney, this is the archetype. This is the reason we do it. The Supreme Court decisions are what we studied day in and day out in law school. It taps into everything altruistic and pure about the practice of law. On some level, it is why we all do what we do (or at least it was initially).
But for me, I was there for a greater purpose. I looked at the statutes and the exhibits. The Justices whose decisions I had read in law school (and still read) were there. Sandra Day O’Connor’s exhibit was fantastic.
But the first portrait I came to, the reason I was there, was that of Thurgood Marshall. I was the only one in the area, so I was able to stop and reflect. Pay some silent respects. This was the man who broke the mold for African American attorneys. He was the first African American Supreme Court Justice. He tried the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. His quotes, his philosophy, his life, is a source of inspiration. I sat at a bench across from the portrait deep in thought. Wondered how I had gotten here. And it was because of trailblazers like Thurgood Marshall. His portrait, juxtaposed against the information on the Taney Court and the Dred Scott decision (slaves were not citizens and Congress could not regulate slavery), and this nation’s history showed a progression, how far we had come.
Unfortunately, I was quickly snapped back to reality. How the courts and justice system routinely fail Blacks in America. How just walking down the street, or committing a minor infraction can get you killed. How we are still, in many respects, treated like less than citizens. As far as we have come, we have quite a long way to go. It was a bit disheartening.
But in staring at Thurgood Marshall’s portrait, I had to smile. It was the portrait of one of the great American lawyers. And I got to witness it firsthand.
The Magic of the Martin Luther King Memorial
After I met up with my travel companions—my mom, my sis, and my sister-in-law—our first stop was the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
As we rode up, we couldn’t see anything except a big stone. But once you enter the area, the realism, the writings, hit you all at once. The huge slate panels with MLK’s numerous, inspirational quotes. And then, as we came around the stone, the huge presence sculpted into stone was absolute perfection. Visitors were swarming around statute and when we made it to the front we could see why.
The massive stone was carefully etched and carved with an excellent rendition of MLK, standing tall and regal in the center of the memorial. We just looked at it, from all angles for a few moments, taking it all in. We took pictures with it, gazed upwards at the monumental statute, and took in the scene. Then we moved along the wall, reading Martin Luther King’s words, which still hold so much bearing today:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have the three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King’s words ring true today. With the injustices going on around the world—hell, around the country—it is hard to believe that so many of the things MLK, and Thurgood Marshall, and other greats of the Civil Rights Movement fought for 50-60 years ago are still occurring today. Black kids are invited to a pool party and the cops are called because they “don’t belong.” Brown v. Board of Education was decided 61 years ago, but we still have an extremely unequal school system that may not be segregated de jure (by law) but is certainly segregated de facto (by fact/in reality).
But despite the long way we clearly have to go in American society, we have come a long way. I stand on the backs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, and all of my Black ancestors who got me to where I am today. In fact, we all do. African Americans, before they were even citizens as Dred Scott reminds us, built this country from the ground up. Literally.
But even if the rest of America doesn’t realize that, I realize that. That’s why we made sure our first stop was the MLK Memorial; and that’s why even after a long night on a redeye, I made sure to go to the Supreme Court and take a moment with Thurgood Marshall’s portrait. To pay homage.
And say “Thank you.”