Cecilia Marshall, Rights Advocate and Widow of Justice, Dies at 94

A civil rights activist herself, she guarded Thurgood Marshall’s legacy as the first Black member of the Supreme Court.

A gray-haired Cecilia Marshall in a bright pink top speaking into a microphone.
Cecilia Marshall in 2006. She served on the boards of the Supreme Court Historical Society and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund and guarded his legacy after his death in 1993.Credit...Matt Houston/Associated Press

Cecilia Marshall, who as an NAACP stenographer transcribed the legal briefs for the Brown v. Board of Education decision and then married Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who successfully argued that landmark school desegregation case and who later became the first Black justice named to the United States Supreme Court, died on Tuesday at her home in Falls Church, Va. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by her son Thurgood Marshall Jr.

Mrs. Marshall, who was known as Cissy, married Mr. Marshall in 1955, a year after the Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that separate but equal facilities for providing public education were inherently unconstitutional.

Mr. Marshall, who headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him solicitor general in 1965 and elevated him to associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1967. Justice Marshall retired in 1991 and died at 84 in 1993.

Mrs. Marshall, a civil rights stalwart herself, served on the boards of the Supreme Court Historical Society and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund. She tempered her husband’s exasperation over the slow progress of civil rights during his career and guarded his legacy after his death.

In a 1998 biography, “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary,” the journalist Juan Williams wrote that she had struggled to keep from the public his explosive “frustration with the conservative court and what remained of the civil rights movement.”

In addition to their son Thurgood Jr., Mrs. Marshall is survived by another son, John W. Marshall, a former Virginia secretary of public safety and former director of the U.S. Marshals Service; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Justice Elena Kagan, who had clerked for Justice Marshall, said in a statement after Mrs. Marshall’s death: “Every clerk to Justice Marshall received a sort of bonus: the steadfast friendship and support of his wife, Cissy.”

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Mrs. Marshall helping her husband get ready for his swearing in as a Supreme Court justice in 1967.Credit...Bettmann, via Getty Images

Cecilia Suyat was born on July 20, 1928, in Puunene, Maui, Hawaii, to parents who had immigrated from the Philippines in 1910. Her mother died when she was young. Her father, who owned a printing company, sent her to live with an aunt and uncle in New York after World War II, to separate her from a boyfriend whom he disfavored.

For a Hawaiian, marrying Mr. Marshall, after his first wife, Vivian (Burey) Marshall, died of lung cancer at 44, meant crossing an even bigger barrier, especially after Walter White, the head of the N.A.A.C.P., who was Black, divorced his Black wife to marry a white woman.

That interracial marriage “practically broke up the whole organization,” Mrs. Marshall recalled in an interview for the Civil Rights History Project in 2013.

“And so when Thurgood proposed, I said, ‘No way,’ because a lot of people still considered me as a foreigner,” she said. “Hawaii wasn’t too familiar to people then. But he insisted.” (They surmounted another gap: He was 6-foot-2; she was 4-foot-11.)

Roy Wilkins, then the executive director of the N.A.A.C.P., presided at the wedding, at the historic St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. (Mrs. Marshall had been the private secretary to the N.A.A.C.P.’s former deputy executive director, Dr. Gloster B. Current.)

She had taken night courses in stenography at Columbia University. Because of her dark skin, she said, an employment office clerk referred her to the N.A.A.C.P. in Washington. Her first assignment was to picket a theater showing the racist epic film “The Birth of a Nation.” (The theater canceled the showing.)

She also accompanied defense lawyers on sometimes harrowing assignments to the segregated South during the civil rights movement.

“I remember riding in one car with Thurgood, and one of the branch members says, ‘Judge, open up that glove compartment,’” she recalled in the oral history. “And he opened it up. He says, ‘You see? There’s a Bible there, and there’s a gun there.’ He says, ‘We use the Bible first. If that doesn’t work, we use the gun.’”