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Trojans remember Thurgood Marshall at Visions and Voices event

From left, Judge Dorothy Nelson, USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and Professor Rebecca Brown at a screening of Thurgood (Photo/Mikel Healey)

The USC Gould School of Law, the USC School of Dramatic Arts and USC Visions and Voices joined forces on Sept. 13 to present a screening of Thurgood, a film about the life of Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. The screening was accompanied by a discussion with three prominent panelists who worked with the renowned legal scholar.

Marshall, who gained prominence in the 1950s for establishing benchmarks in civil rights advancement, tried the historic case Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court unanimously declared that segregating black and white students was unconstitutional.

Before the film’s screening, Judge Dorothy Nelson, USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and Professor Rebecca Brown spoke about their relationships with Marshall and his connection to USC Gould.

“I first got to know Justice Marshall when I invited him to judge our moot court,” said Nelson, who was dean of the USC law school from 1969 until her appointment to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

When Nelson recruited the law school’s first class of African-American students, she went to Marshall for advice. Of the 20 students selected, seven failed out within the first year, while other law schools in similar circumstances were giving their black students another chance. Marshall urged the school to treat all of its students equally and not allow the black students to return. Rather, he encouraged Nelson to help them transfer to other schools to complete their degrees.

“Because of his advice, the black students from USC Gould met the same standards as their peers,” Nelson recalled. “It made such a difference when it came to the job market, because everyone knew that the USC graduates had actually completed the curriculum successfully. It was all thanks to Justice Marshall.”

Garrett, senior vice president for academic affairs, clerked for Marshall before beginning her career in academics.

“He was the best lawyer of the last century,” Garrett said. “What was so special about him was that he brought a real-world experience to the court. He didn’t go to an Ivy League law school; he didn’t live an upper middle class life. He knew what it was like to face discrimination, and he dealt with it with enormous humor and an abiding faith.”

Similarly, Brown, the Newton Professor of Constitutional Law, also clerked for Marshall and credits him with inspiring her to teach.

“He had a profound impact on my life,” Brown said. “It was clear that he had been shaped so much by his law professors, and that was part of the reason he became involved in the civil rights movement. He believed that law professors can not only have an impact through their students but also through getting involved in policy to make the world a better place.”

The screening at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism was so packed with students and faculty vying to see the film, it was also broadcast on televisions in the lobbies.

The film originated as a one-man theatrical show starring Laurence Fishburne. To bring the story to a wider audience, HBO filmed a performance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Told in the first person, the narrative revisits pivotal moments in Marshall’s personal life and career. From his childhood memories to trials and tribulations at Howard University’s School of Law, the film’s overarching message is that of overcoming adversity and challenging oppression.

“When you get to learn about something amazing in a medium you enjoy, like film, it makes the experience so much more memorable,” said Lauren Pacheco, a senior majoring in communications who attended the screening. “It’s events like these that make me want to continue my education at USC.”

The panelists agreed that knowing and working with Marshall had a meaningful impact on their lives, both personally and professionally. Nelson described having “never been as proud” than when she spoke at his public memorial in 1993.

“People often think of it as a bad thing to be told ‘you think like a lawyer,’ ” Garrett told the audience. “But I’ve grown up in a world where people who think like lawyers are people like Justice Marshall, who believe the law can fundamentally transform lives. So, in my view, it’s one of the greatest compliments.”

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