Environmental Justice: An Appreciation of Thurgood Marshall’s Outdoor Legacy


“During some of the darkest times in our nation’s history, when rights were denied, lives were threatened and African Americans knew they could not turn to their government for help, calls would go out to the NAACP. When the answer came, the words whispered in homes, churches and communities were enough to calm fears, lift despair, assuage anger and give enough hope to hold on a bit longer: “Thurgood’s coming.” ” – Stephanie J. Jones

Fifty years ago, Thurgood Marshall began his service as the first African American Supreme Court Justice. His appointment came after a breath of work devoted to dismantling the separate but equal doctrine. While his legacy is most often put in the context of school desegregation, police misconduct and voting rights, Thurgood Marshall also played a central role in enforcing African Americans’ right to #BlackJoy in the outdoors.

Separate But Equal

Marshall and his famous legal mentor Charles Houston were the primary architects of the legal strategy to end government enforcement of separate but equal policies. In Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall, at the time the Legal Director of the NAACP, argued that it is vital to the country and to the world that the Court affirm that Black children are not a danger to white children. He reminded the Court that the evidence of this fact is in outdoor recreation:

“Kids in Virginia and South Carolina…they play in the streets together, they play on their farms together, they go down the road together, they separate to go to school, they come out of school and play ball together. They have to be separated in school.” -Thurgood Marshall, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953.

Marshall argued that separate but equal policies’ sole purpose was to keep the descendants of slaves as close to slavery as possible. Based on this rationale, the Court struck down school segregation. Marshall’s strategy was later employed by civil rights lawyers and community activists around the country to challenge separate but equal policies in swimming pools, parks, beaches, picnic sites and campgrounds.

Black Land Ownership

Before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall argued and won Mcghee v. Sipes (see Shelley v. Kraemer.) This case made restrictive covenants based on race in land deeds unenforceable. Before this case, African Americans saved hard earned money to invest into the American Dream of buying houses with a backyard where they could watch their children play safely. At the time, Black people were signing land deeds and later told that the sale was invalid. If they refused to leave, white neighbors could rely on the government to help forcibly remove them and had no recourse. Many Black people had their houses vandalized, bombed and their families terrorized until they left the neighborhood.

While the widespread use of racially restrictive covenants continued after the Supreme Court victory, white land owners could not leverage the government to enforce them. Moreover, the success of this case indicated to Marshall and the NAACP that Jim Crow’s days were numbered.

It also paved the way for Black Americans to become land owners and create wealth that could be passed down to future generations.

Outdoor Afro uplifts and honors Black History every day of the year. Since 2017 marks the 50th Anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s historic appointment to the Supreme Court, we are spending this February reflecting on his impact in our work. Across the country, Outdoor Afro leaders from Boston to Charleston to St. Louis to Bay Area California, will lead nature walks, snow shoe events, and hikes in public parks that were once segregated. We will invite discussions on the impact that Justice Marshall had on our own families’ neighborhood mobility and land ownership. We will talk to our parents, grandparents and elders about how they experienced public lands during Jim Crow and in the early days of desegregation.

We will hold space and gratitude for Thurgood Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall Memorial

Written By National Program Director Zoë Polk


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