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Movie illuminates Thurgood Marshall's life
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Chad Martin (standing), vice president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Council, listens Monday as a panelist assesses his thoughts on the film “Thurgood.” (Bulletin photo by Doug Powell)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

By DOUG POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

About 75 or 80 people gathered Monday in uptown Martinsville for a screening of “Thurgood,” a film about the late Thurgood Marshall, who was a lawyer for the NAACP before he became the first black member of the Supreme Court.

Mervin Brown, president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Council, and Chad Martin, vice president, spearheaded the event at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum (the former Henry County courthouse).

The film, starring Laurence Fishburne as Marshall, was released in 2011 and is based on a one-man play of the same name. Fishburne talks to his audience in the film about the ups and downs of Marshall’s life. The movie spoke of the role Marshall had in the civil rights movement and the people who influenced him throughout his life.

“It was a powerful film, and hopefully we can get it out to more people,” Brown said. “I was in the back, and I was watching how it had everyone’s attention — the whole movie. Nobody got up and left. This movie was how he went about doing it. ... He could use the law to win his fight.”

Marshall was denied admission into the University of Maryland Law School in 1930, a day that greatly impacted his view on life. He later was accepted into Howard University’s law school.

His first major court case came in 1933 when he represented Donald Gaines Murray in a suit against the University of Maryland School of Law for denying Murray admission because he was black. The suit was successful, and Murray was admitted to the law school in 1936.

Marshall was part of many landmark cases, including the well-known Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court declared so-called “separate but equal” schools for black and white students unconstitutional.

He was an associate justice on the Supreme Court for 24 years, from 1967 to 1991. He died on Jan. 24, 1993, at 84.

The film covered some hard-hitting subjects, such as Marshall growing up the grandson of a slave and dealing with racism throughout his life. But Fishburne’s portrayal showed Marshall’s sense of humor as he cracked more than a few unexpected jokes that eased the tension in the film and in the audience Monday night.

After the movie, a panel of nine people took the jury stand in the former courtroom at the heritage center to discuss the film. The panelists, who included pastors, lawyers, chaplains, police officers and others, shared their thoughts on the movie while also giving their perspectives on how it related to their pasts as well as their lives today.

“The passion that Thurgood Marshall had was really inspiring,” said Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Clay Gravely. “... We have a long way to go — there’s no doubt about it. I think if Justice Marshall was here today he would say, ‘Don’t stop fighting; don’t turn your head.’”

Two panelists drove from Washington, D.C., and Winchester to attend the film and discussion.

A question-and-answer session with the audience was expected to follow the panelists’ comments, but instead audience members broke up into separate groups to discuss the film among themselves and plan future encounters.

Brown said other events the council has put on include an art contest in January as well as an essay contest planned for the start of the school year. More quarterly events designed to educate the public are planned for the future, he said.

“Although our name is Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Council, it is more than just that one day in January,” Brown said, referring to the annual holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. “There’s so much going on, and it’s more of an encouragement to our youth.

“This being such a small area, a close-knit area and we want to just bridge the areas together and come together and be one,” Brown added.


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