July 16, 2012
BOSTON — Former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall stepped down in 2010 after serving on the court for 14 years. Her legacy was firmly established with the landmark 2003 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, but she could have remained on the court for several more years until mandatory retirement at age 70.
Still, she chose to leave in part because she doesn’t believe in staying at the party too long.
“The tenure for life I think is a problem for the United States Supreme Court because we are living longer and longer,” Marshall told WGBH’s Emily Rooney in a wide-ranging interview.“It’s not an issue of competence. You need institutional renewal and you need to give younger generations and people a chance.”
A dawning awareness
Marshall’s own chance came after leaving her native South Africa — first coming to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in the early 1960s. “There was just something about this country and its freedom that absolutely captivated me,” she recalled. “I learned more about South Africa in Wilmington, Delaware, than I knew in South Africa.”
That’s because growing up in rural South Africa, Marshall knew very little about the apartheid government that strictly segregated the races. She said she had no clue about the lives of black South Africans, even those that worked as servants in her house: “It really was a kind of blindness which is very difficult to explain.”
Returning with open eyes
When Marshall returned to South Africa for college, she was focused on her country’s inequalities, joining the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students. After several years of activism, she told Emily about her last major act of defiance in South Africa.
It was 1967. The Zulu chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert John Luthuli had died and apartheid laws barred whites from attending his funeral. Marshall thought it would be an injustice if no white person paid tribute to the great African statesman and she was determined to go.
Marshall recalled seeing thousands of black South Africans walking many miles to attend the funeral, purposely restricted to a remote area by the government. “There were six pallbearers wearing the uniform, the recognizable uniform of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party which was outlawed. I was there with Steven Biko, who was later killed by the police. And he turned to me and he said — I remember that as if it were yesterday — he said, ‘Margy, you the see, the African National Congress in not dead.’”
A conclusive act
Months later, Margaret Marshall left South Africa, for good it would turn out, to begin graduate studies at Harvard. Citing her political activism, the South African government barred Marshall from ever returning.
For more of Margaret Marshall’s story, including her thoughts on the landmark Goodrich decision, watch her interview with Emily Rooney online:
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.