Stephanie J. Jones, a public affairs and government relations strategist, was executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute from 2005 to 2010. This is from The Washington Post.


As Sens. Jeff Sessions, Jon Kyl and John Cornyn disparaged the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on the opening day of Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings this week - dismissing him as an "activist judge" in what appeared to be a raw attempt to score political points - I wondered: "Have you no sense of decency?"

Let me put it plainly, senators: Far from being the out-of-the-mainstream caricature you seek to create, Thurgood Marshall deserves your unyielding gratitude and respect.

It was Marshall who, with Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, conceived and then painstakingly effectuated the jurisprudence that led to the striking down of the odious "separate but equal" doctrine that threatened to destroy this country.

While many decry "activist judges," those judges who undermine civil rights often demonstrate the most extreme forms of activism. Judges such as those who declared in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was constitutionally sound turned the Constitution on its head and made a mockery of equal protection.

Those activist judges subjected an entire segment of Americans to more than half a century of state-imposed degradation, subjugation and humiliation.

As general counsel for the NAACP, Marshall thoughtfully laid the groundwork for change. He and a cadre of brilliant lawyers, black and white, spent nearly two decades paving the way for the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in 1954 that "separate but equal" was antithetical to our constitutional principles.

Far from activists, they were protectors of the Constitution. Unlike many of his detractors, past and present, Marshall showed the utmost reverence for the Constitution, digging it out of the trash heap on which Plessy and its progeny had tossed it, and helping the nation begin to heal.

Marshall stood up for the rights of millions of ordinary Americans who, were it not for him, would have continued to be second-class citizens - unable to vote, attend state universities or share public accommodations by virtue of the color of their skin.

And he carried forth this work on the Supreme Court.

"Whether in the majority or in dissent, Justice Marshall's faith in the Constitution encompassed more than the racial issues of his civil rights days," members of the Supreme Court bar noted in an unanimous resolution honoring the late justice in 1993.

As a lawyer and a justice, he protected us from activist judges and the cramped thinking of politicians who tried to keep our country in the muck. And he never forgot how the high court's rulings affect the least of us.

During some of the darkest times in our nation's history, when rights were denied, lives were threatened and African-Americans knew they could not turn to their government for help, calls would go out to the NAACP. When the answer came, the words whispered were enough to calm fears, lift despair, assuage anger and give enough hope to hold on a bit longer: "Thurgood's coming."

Thurgood came. And he came through. He taught us all what it means to love our country enough to work to make it a little better, a little stronger and a little closer to what it's supposed to be. That's not activism. That's patriotism.

And for that, Marshall deserves respect and thanks, not sneers.