A Hero Like Thurgood: Author Guest Post by Kekla Magoon

Author Kekla Magoon and The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall's Life, Leadership, and Legacy - available now!

I’ve always thought of Thurgood Marshall as a hero. He was a famous attorney who battled for civil rights in courts all over the country. He argued the landmark school desegregation case known as Brown v. Board of Education. He made such a name for himself in the law that he became the first Black justice nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. In many ways, Thurgood was an extraordinary hero, and he led a remarkable, world-changing life. But he was also an ordinary man who simply wanted to do his part to make his country a more just place.

Thurgood’s wife and sons join him as he’s sworn in as Solicitor General, with President Johnson looking on. (photo credit: Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress)

When I talk to young readers about the heroes of history, like Thurgood, I always make a point to not just lift him up in ways that make him seem superhuman—which would be easy. Rather, I try to also humanize him, to bring him down from that high, spotlit pedestal where his story tends to reside. The truth is, he had many qualities that make him more relatable than he might seem at first, being one of the most famous Black people in American history. Thurgood was determined. He was strong. He could be goofy and silly when he was spending time with his friends; in fact, he often got in trouble in school for acting up. He loved to talk and argue, and ideas made him feel excited. He cared deeply about all human beings, and wanted badly for the law to treat everyone equally, the way he saw people.

It’s challenging to fit the entire, nuanced life story of someone so accomplished into the short text of a picture book, so the facts of the story tend to trace the high points of Thurgood’s life and career. However, in crafting the overarching narrative, I tried to keep a handful of things in mind that I feel are good themes for young readers to recognize about not just Thurgood, but ALL of our historical heroes:

1. Heroes don’t emerge from nowhere. Even the most famous Supreme Court Justice started out small, as a child trying to find his way in the world. Thurgood observed the unfairness of segregation in Baltimore, where he grew up, and he decided at a young age to be someone who worked to overcome this problem, and to see these laws removed. Everything he did early in his life helped shape him into the influential person he would become—his years of study, his practice at debate, his decision to become a lawyer.

2. Every great accomplishment is really a series of small accomplishments. Thurgood participated in debate team in high school and college. There, he learned how to craft an argument, something that would help him throughout his career. He also learned how ideas can build on top of each other to create bigger ideas. Thurgood’s goal for many years was to argue against segregation before the Supreme Court, but he couldn’t just walk in to the Supreme Court and do that. He had to have a strategy. That strategy involved representing cases all over the country, building a series of legal precedents and decisions that he could use to advance his path to the Court. The famous Brown v. Board of Education did not occur in a vacuum—it was the culmination of a long train of cases that ALL added up to erasing segregation from our laws.

3. The heroes we celebrate are not perfect, and they did not lead perfect lives. Thurgood made plenty of mistakes in his life. Things did not always go his way. He won many of the cases he argued, but he lost some too. Losing a case did not cause him to give up—it caused him to work even harder the next time. He faced disappointments that could have discouraged him—for example, his first choice law school did not admit Black students, so he had to find a different path to his goals. He struggled through loss and grief, when his first wife died of cancer. He faced discrimination when he fell in love with a woman of a different race, something many people disapproved of at the time. He loved and married her anyway. Thurgood did not let setbacks keep him down, nor define him.

4. People who change the world rarely do it alone. Thurgood was always part of a team of activists working together to make change. He had mentors, colleagues, clerks, friends, and family who supported his work and helped make his leadership possible. When we celebrate heroes, it’s important to remember that they had a lot of help. Being a changemaker doesn’t mean going it completely alone—by working together, with everyone doing their small part, we can move mountains! While Thurgood was focused on challenging segregation in the courtroom, thousands of other activists were marching, protesting, fundraising, and calling for justice in their own ways, too. All of these voices raised together created a movement.

Considering the human behind the hero in this way makes it seem much more possible that anyone can be part of creating change. It reminds me that, in my own way, by doing my small part—writing, teaching, speaking, sharing truths with young readers—I can be a hero like Thurgood. And so can you!

About the Author

Kekla Magoon is the Margaret A. Edwards Award-winning author of twelve novels including The Rock and the River, How It Went Down, X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz) and The Season of Styx Malone. She writes nonfiction from picture books to YA, including The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy; She Persisted: Ruby Bridges (with Chelsea Clinton);and the forthcoming Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People. She has received an NAACP Image Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, and been longlisted for the National Book Award. She teaches writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Visit her online at keklamagoon.com and on twitter @keklamagoon

About the Book

A brilliant picture book biography about Thurgood Marshall, who fought for equality during the Civil Rights Movement and served as the first Black justice on the Supreme Court, from Coretta Scott King Honor winners Kekla Magoon and Laura Freeman.

Growing up in Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall could see that things weren’t fair. The laws said that Black and white people couldn’t use the same schools, parks, or water fountains.

When Thurgood had to read the Constitution as punishment for a prank at school, his eyes were opened. It was clear to him that Jim Crow laws were wrong, and he was willing to do whatever it took to change them.

His determination to make sure all Americans were treated equally led him to law school and then the NAACP, where he argued cases like Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. But to become a Justice on the highest court in the land, Thurgood had to make space for himself every step of the way.