Today I was privileged to join colleagues of the bar, bench, pulpit and social justice community to dedicate a monument to the life and legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Especially in this era of faction and fissure, I was grateful that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Jews and Gentiles – truly a sea of faces, colors and creeds – united to honor Justice Marshall’s courage and vision.
It was right that network and local news crews flocked to the event. At last, a shared stand against fear, hatred, bias and mistrust. At last a shared spark of righteous indignation against unequal justice under law. At last. At last.
Yes, words and tributes matter. They’re reminders and symbols of values. Memorials honoring heroes and pathfinders can be holy places — but they’re not holy inherently. How many folks pass countless monuments to Martin, Rosa and Harriet, totally inured to them — without noticing, stopping and thinking? How long before the same will happen for Thurgood here?
In my Court of Appeals days, often I’d visit an adjacent pocket garden to wrestle hard cases at all hours of night. I imagined, I hoped, that giants of generations before me did likewise – John Jay, Benjamin Cardozo, Judith Kaye.
I wondered what they’d do, how they’d do justice, what they’d think, how they’d feel.
In my most recent Albany stint, it was the Senate. Amidst the Capitol’s tributes to Roosevelt and Cuomo, I’d sit on the marble floor at all hours. Often stakeholders pressing for one bill or another would follow me there. I’d find myself sitting on the marble floor – not something they were used to seeing. They’d look at each other, shrug, and join me on the marble floor.
More recently it was Dr. King outside my Westchester courthouse. I’d take poignant cases out for a walk and ask: In what ways, however small, might I help prime the pump of justice, to “flow like a mighty stream”?
It’s hard. It should be hard. It should keep us up at night. It should poke our complacency and toss the laurels from our heads. While our heroes, pathfinders, monuments and memorials all should accord us comfort, they should challenge us at least in equal measure. Much as in my clergy role, our teachers and exemplars of justice comforted the afflicted and, sometimes, afflicted the comfortable.
I’m grateful Thurgood will be nearby to comfort and challenge me. I’ll be visiting often and wondering: What might Thurgood do?