The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Mrs. Marshall—then known as Cissy Suyat—was raised in Hawaii and arrived in New York after World War II, where she took evening classes to become a court stenographer. A clerk at an employment agency “saw my dark skin and she sent me to the national office of the NAACP,” she told The Washington Post years later.
Her starting salary was $35 a week in 1948, but she quickly advanced in salary and responsibilities. She worked on school desegregation cases for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, typing notes and taking notes while lawyers practiced pleadings.
Her duties also included escorting Defense Fund officers on trips to the Deep South where they had to face sometimes menacing local opposition. She recalled in a government oral history that she was driving a car once when a passenger asked another to open the glove compartment.
Inside was a bible and a gun. When she was threatened, she remembered the man saying, “We’ll use the Bible first.”
In May 1954, Thurgood Marshall triumphed on the Supreme Court as the NAACP’s lead attorney in Brown v Board, the landmark ruling that banned racial segregation in US public schools. In the following months, he became distraught when his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey, succumbed to lung cancer. She died in February 1955.
Shortly thereafter, Marshall “began diligently courting Suyat,” journalist Wil Haygood wrote in his 2015 biography “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.” They often left the office together and were seen dining in each other’s company at Harlem restaurants. It didn’t go unnoticed among NAACP staffers that, at age 26, she was 20 years younger than Marshall.
He proposed marriage, but she turned him down for reasons other than age, she told The Post. “No way,” she recalls telling him. “People will think you are marrying a foreigner.”
Interracial marriage was a particularly sensitive issue at the time with the NAACP. In the late 1940s, after executive director Walter White divorced his wife and married a white woman, he faced backlash from whites and blacks. “His two sisters … berated him and told him he had let the Negro race,” Haygood wrote of Walter White.
But Marshall was not deterred.
“I don’t care what people think. I’ll marry you,” she remembered him saying. He persisted and eventually she accepted. They were married on December 17, 1955, at an Episcopal church in Harlem, where Roy Wilkins, then Executive Secretary of the NAACP, gave her away. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were among the visitors to pay their respects at the couple’s apartment.
NAACP leaders had been given advance notice of the marriage. The media was not informed until after the ceremony. There was little or no public outcry.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York. The couple settled in the Washington area in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as US Attorney General. Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967.
The Marshalls also started a family. Cissy Marshall took the lead in guiding and caring for their two sons and managing their home in Falls Church, Virginia, while her husband was often absent, either traveling or working long hours.
“Who is that man?” said her son Thurgood Jr. once upon seeing a picture of his father, according to Haygood’s book. Mrs. Marshall tried to explain to her children the importance of his work and the sacrifices it entailed for their family. He retired from the court in 1991 and died in 1993.
Survivors include their sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr. of Arlington, Virginia, and John Marshall of Falls Church; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In a 1998 biography, “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary,” journalist Juan Williams wrote that, particularly in Justice Marshall’s later years, he became known for his gruff and aloof manner, even with staff and friends—the result of what Williams characterized as a nagging “frustration with the conservative court and what was left of the civil rights movement.”
Cissy Marshall said she tried to encourage her husband to express himself while also working diligently to protect him from embarrassing social encounters.
“Occasionally he explodes,” she told Williams. “I wish he would explode more and get it out of his system. But he keeps a lot inside.”
Cecilia Suyat was born in Pu’unene, Maui, on July 20, 1928. She was young when her mother died. Her father, who owned a printing business, sent her to New York to live with relatives, in part to keep her away from a friend he disapproved of because he spoke a different Filipino dialect.
“For my dad, that was a no-no,” she told The Post. “Imagine that? A different dialect, instead of a different race? So he said, ‘You go to New York with your aunt and uncle and take some business courses. And if you still love him in a year, then come back and marry him.’ ”
She married Marshall instead. She told The Post that they had a playful combative relationship, based in part on the fact that he was a sturdy 6-foot-2 and she was 4-foot-11.
“How’s the weather down there, girl?” he sometimes teased her.
“Same as up there, man,” she’d reply. “I kept saying to him, ‘I don’t care how tall you are. I could beat you up. I’m going to sit on a chair.’ ”