When Thurgood Marshall died 13 years ago this week, he left behind a life of historic accomplishments: Intrepid warrior against Jim Crow. Architect of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. First black Supreme Court justice.
Now, some of Marshall's fellow Episcopalians are saying that the spiritual hallmark of his life -- his Christian commitment to racial justice -- qualifies him for special recognition. They think the Episcopal Church should name him a saint.
Delegates to the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington will vote today on the proposal, the first step in a long process. If Marshall is added to the church's roster of saints, May 17 -- the date of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools are unconstitutional -- would be observed as Marshall Feast Day.
Church officials say they expect the 300 or so delegates to approve the resolution, which was drawn up by members of St. Augustine's Church in Southwest Washington, where Marshall worshiped.
"I haven't heard anyone say it's a bad idea," said Jim Naughton, spokesman for Bishop John Bryson Chane, who will preside at today's assembly at Washington National Cathedral.
When it comes to sainthood, Episcopalians follow a looser procedure than the Roman Catholic Church, which conducts a rigorous investigation into the life of any saint-to-be and requires proof that he or she performed at least two miracles. Candidates for Episcopal sainthood should be figures who displayed traits such as "heroic faith," "joyousness" and "service to others for Christ's sake," according to church guidelines.
Although Marshall did not speak publicly about his faith, it meant a great deal to him, said his widow, Cecilia Marshall, 78, who plans to be present when the resolution comes up for a vote.
"I believe if it weren't for his faith, he wouldn't have accomplished as much as he has," she said.
Marshall, who died of heart failure on Jan. 24, 1993, at the age of 84, was a lifelong Episcopalian. Born in Baltimore to a Pullman car porter and a schoolteacher, he graduated from Howard University's law school in 1933.
The great-grandson of a slave, he spent 30 years traveling the South, filing lawsuits on behalf of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. On at least three occasions, he was threatened with lynching.
In 1938, Marshall joined St. Philip's Church in Harlem while living in New York. After President Lyndon B. Johnson named him solicitor general in 1965, he and Cecilia moved to the District and joined St. Augustine's.
In written testimonies accompanying the resolution, Episcopalians say Marshall revealed his faith in his work.
"The Spirit working through this man gave him an intuitive sense of justice in which he saw all of life as sacred and all persons equal before God," wrote the Rev. William S. Pregnall, former rector of St. Augustine's.
If the Washington delegates vote to make Marshall a saint, the resolution will need to be approved by two consecutive national conventions. The next national convention will be in June, and the one after that, in 2009.
The names of such saints are entered in a liturgical text called the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts -- "lesser" because these are not the primary feast days of the liturgical year, such as those dedicated to the Apostles.
"We're declaring [as saints] people who've given great Christian witness and played a unique role in the life of the church," said the Rev. Bruce Eberhardt, who wrote the resolution with his wife, Janet. "We don't pray to them. . . . It's very different from the Roman Catholic Church."
As far as miracles, Eberhardt added, "we think the miracle of Thurgood was turning this country around, changing the way we are."
One possible obstacle is that the national convention is considering a resolution stating that people should not be considered for sainthood until 50 years after their death.
"We're hoping we can argue that just as Martin Luther King Jr. has been in this book for some time now, Marshall deserves equal ranking," Eberhardt said.
Eberhardt, a retired priest and a member of St. Augustine's, said that a former rector of that parish, the Rev. John Talbott, tried to have Marshall named a saint in 1994, but "people thought it was too early [after his death] to make this move."
Talbott urged Eberhardt to try again, and the vestry at St. Augustine's approved the effort in May.
Cecilia Marshall said she felt "humbled and honored" by the proposal to name her husband a saint. She added that she had no role in the effort, "except to give my approval."
Her husband "never thought of himself as a saint," she said, noting that he declined several times to see the stained-glass window dedicated to him in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. "He never went to look at it. He felt he just wasn't worthy of it."
She added: "I used to kid my husband. I said, you better go and look at it; that's the closest you'll ever get to heaven."