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Black History Month Time Capsule 1: Thurgood Marshall – The Great Architect of American race relations

Date posted: 25 October 2021

Thurgood Marshall

To mark Black History Month some of our lawyers have written letters to future lawyers spotlighting the work of one of their inspirations from the black legal or activist community. The letters will be put into a Time Capsule and buried in our garden for future generations of Wilson’s lawyers to dig up and read one day

Here is the first from our Shahailya Stephenson, an Associate Solicitor in our Immigration Team and one of the co-chairs of our Ethnic Minority Committee.

Dear Future Lawyer

I’m writing you this letter from Wilson Solicitors LLP in Black History Month October 2021. I wonder who you are, where you are and when you will be reading this. I hope this short letter helps guide you as you follow the path to legal qualification.

Having reflected on my own path to qualification during Black History Month, I thought I could best advise you through spotlighting the life and work of one of my inspirations: Thurgood Marshall. He is a pivotal example of how your work in the future can be fundamental for social change. Marshall taught me that failures, set-backs, negative opinions and doubters of your ability shape you to be the best version of yourself and the most capable of lawyers. In fact he famously said: “A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.”

You see, at the end of his career Marshall held a whole host of credentials including lawyer, civil rights activist,  associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1967–91), and the Court’s first African American member. However, the journey to creating such a dossier of achievements was not always smooth.

No one, including Marshall could foresee that when he was rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because he was not white, that years later he would be at the helm of the legal victory of Murray v. Pearson (1935), a suit accusing the University of Maryland [the very same] of violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws by denying an African American applicant admission to its law school solely on the basis of race.

Upon reflecting upon Marshall’s life work, perhaps it is not that surprising because Marshall mastered the art of turning tragedy into triumph. After being rejected by the University of Maryland, Marshall did not sit down and give up. Instead, he applied to Howard University and eventually graduated first in his class.

Marshall teaches you the importance of being creative, innovative and unique in your advocacy. His advance and intelligent legal maneuvering and tactics reaffirmed my ideology of the need to be unafraid of pursing remedies which are said to only be available in ‘exceptional’ or ‘compassionate’ circumstances. The life’s work of Marshall has taught me of the need of lawyers to be adept at arguing outside the Rules to achieve enduring, meaningful stability for their clients.  Unquestionably, Marshall achieved such greatness in the trailblazing case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in which he successfully argued that segregation in public education produced unequal schools for African Americans and whites, thereby demolishing the previously accepted premise of ‘separate but equal.’

By the time Marshall retired in 1991, he was known as “the Great Dissenter,” one of the last remaining liberal members of a Supreme Court dominated by a conservative majority. So, future lawyer, I urge you to learn from Marshall and lead instead of follow. Be armed with diligence, tenacity and perseverance to conquer all odds. And most importantly, when faced with failure, get up and start again for your future endeavours could be transformative in the lives of others.

Wishing you the very best.

Yours Faithfully,

Shahailya Stephenson