Remembering Thurgood …and other “door openers”!


“He argued the cases that broke down America’s color line and became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. The stories Thurgood Marshall told his clerks – like me – revealed how he reached across the moral divide of the 20th century. After he retired 30 years ago, the court was never the same.” “The Judge,” by Stephen L. Carter

An often-overlooked piece of history is the phenomenal string of successes Thurgood Marshall had as the leading civil rights litigator in the nation’s history. During a time of fierce resistance to school integration – and the constant death threats he received – Marshall still managed to win a remarkable 29 of 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

Now on the personal side, as one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Judge Marshall utilized compelling stories to teach. Here’s one.

The hero of the story was an unnamed man who went to Las Vegas for a gambling weekend. And it couldn’t be a good story -Marshall said – unless he lost all his money. So he did.

When you lose all your money, the story goes, two things happen. You get hungry and you need to go to the bathroom. So our hero, having lost all his money, went to the restroom, only to discover that you had to pay to use the stalls. Twenty-five cents. Alas, he did not have a dime to his name.

Fortunately, a stranger happened into the room, saw our hero’s dilemma, and gave him a quarter. Our hero was about to pay the quarter to open a stall when he noticed that one of the doors had been left open. He could enter free. He emerged from the bathroom and returned to the casino and put his quarter in a slot machine and hit the jackpot.

He kept stuffing quarters into the slot machine and kept on winning. After his winnings continued to increase at the blackjack table and at roulette, he quit after 48 hours having accumulated a million dollars in winnings. He then swore off gambling for life. Later he invested his money with a brilliant broker and his fortune just kept multiplying until he became one of the wealthiest people in the country.

At that point he came to a momentous decision

He called a press conference and told the assembled reporters the story of how he made his fortune, beginning with that night in Las Vegas. Then he made a promise that if his benefactor came forward, he would receive half of our hero’s fortune.

Claimants surfaced by the thousands. He hired a top firm of private investigators to screen them out. After a few months, the head of the agency called him up.

“We’ve found the man,” he said.

“Are you sure,” our hero asked.

“We’re sure. We checked out every detail of his story and he passed a lie-detector test.”

“Bring him in,” requested our hero.

So the head of the detective agency brought the man to our hero’s office who came out from behind his big desk and looked the man up and down.

“So, you are my benefactor?”


“You know, you do look familiar. Remind me. What exactly did you do for me?”

“I handed you that quarter in the restroom 30 years ago.”

Our hero shook his head. “You are not my benefactor, “he snapped.

If I’d used that quarter the way you intended for me to use it, I’d be just as poor now as I was that day. My benefactor is the man who left the door of that stall open.”

While some – well, maybe many of you – are in deep thought contemplating your reactions to the Marshall story you just read and who might you share and discuss it with. Meantime, I’ll break the ice with a few questions to expand your thinking:

Who dropped a “quarter” on you at a time when you needed it the most? On the other hand, who disappeared when you required them the most?

Now think about your benefactors, the “door openers,” those who left the door ajar without a desire for recognition; those who not only opened those doors but dismantled the walls that held them in place for you and others to walk through?

Okay now, how might we shift our perspective?

Well, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) poignantly sets the challenge. I’ll paraphrase him with Judge Marshall in mind:

“I love the person that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but one whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves one’s conduct, will pursue personal principles unto death.”

Wrote Stephen Carter, “It was his ability to find that human connection, to reach out across the greatest moral divide of the 20th century, that enabled the Judge to accomplish so much. Without that quality, he would have been just another lawyer.”

Or another quarter distributor!

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The Douglas County Sentinel, The, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.