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

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

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.’”

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