courtesy: Library of Congress

Thurgood Marshall started helping his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, fight legal cases while still a student at Howard University law school. In 1933, Marshall graduated from Howard at the top of his class. A year later, Houston left the university to become chief lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation's leading civil rights organization. Soon after, he recruited Marshall. In an interview with American RadioWorks, law professor Larry Gibson explained that the two made an unlikely duo.

Gibson: Charles Hamilton Houston was a fairly formal person. Thurgood Marshall was a loud, liquor drinking, chain-smoking, take life easy sort of person. They seemed to have been the quintessential odd couple. But what they had in common was they both were brilliant, they both were willing to work hard, and they both were courageous.

Marshall was not only courageous; he was also extremely good-natured. In the courtroom, he disarmed opponents with an easy manner, then clobbered them with the exhaustive legal preparation he had learned from Charles Houston. Here he describes how that thoroughness paid off.


Marshall: There was a clerk of the court here in Washington-I don't remember his name-who lectured to us once a year, and he did it deliberately, and I've always been deeply in debt to him for doing it. He would say that, with very few exceptions, he could look at a pleading filed by a lawyer and tell from looking at it whether it was done by a white or a Negro lawyer.

Later on, in talking to him, he admitted that that was not true. But it stuck; from that day until I stopped practicing law, I never filed a paper in any court with an erasure on it. If I changed a word, it had to be typed all over, because I didn't want that on it. Well, that helped some.

I also remember trying a case in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before a judge-and I know you can't spell his name, Calouette-who ruled against me almost every time, but on one occasion, when a motion was being argued, and the lawyer on the other side said, "Well, Judge, I would like some more time to file another memorandum brief," and he says, "Why?"

He said, "Well, Mr. Marshall has just filed one, two days ago, and I haven't had time to check as to whether his citations are accurate or not, and I'd like that time to check them."

And in open court this judge, who was no friend, said, "You don't have to worry about that. If Mr. Marshall puts his signature on it, you don't have to check it."

Well, that's good enough for me. That's good enough for me.