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Women's History Month: Paying tribute to Margaret Marshall, anti-apartheid activist and judge

Commentary: "Freedom is like oxygen. When you’re breathing it, you’re not even conscious."

BOSTON — Growing up in the small coal-and-steel town of Newcastle, South Africa, Margaret Marshall doesn’t remember having any dreams for her future.

“It sounds strange, but I just didn’t,” she said.

The truth was the women in her life were not the kind of role models who inspired her to dream.

“So few white South African women had careers,” Marshall remembered, that she could not envision herself ever having one either.

She was four years old when apartheid became the rule of law in her country and she remembers her father, an industrial chemist, and her mother, a homemaker, staying clear of politics, and accepting the status quo.

“In South Africa I knew something was wrong, I didn’t like how black people were treated, but I didn’t have the context in which to put it,” she said.

That changed when Marshall, a gifted student, had the opportunity to study in the United States.

It was 1962—a turbulent time in American history when the Civil Rights movement was beginning to make progress.

The same month she began her studies in Wilmington, Delaware as a high school exchange student, the US Supreme Court ruled that the University of Mississippi—“Ole Miss”—must admit James Meredith, its very first black student.

Watching Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcasts, Marshall was shocked to see how Americans could question the government, but not—as would happen in her own country—be locked away for it.

She absorbed what was happening with not only her eyes and ears, but with her heart and soul: The governor of Mississippi ordered state troopers to block Meredith from the Ole Miss campus, and race riots broke out leaving two people dead. Within days, President Kennedy ensured Meredith a place in the classroom, US marshals by his side for safety.

“This had an enormous impact on me,” said Marshall. “There were two fundamental building blocks for me. Religion—‘love thy neighbor as thyself’—and education. If you let people read, think and discuss, their minds will open. It is not accidental that repressive regimes move against intellectuals.”

In South Africa so many books were banned, Marshall said, “I had to come to the US to read.”

And she read like never before—consuming books that were illegal back home; most notably, "Cry, The Beloved Country," Alan Paton’s searing look at the anguish humans experience in the face of injustice.

“Sorrow is better than fear,” Paton wrote. “Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

After her year in America, Marshall returned to South Africa in 1963, seemingly determined to stop the storm.

“Freedom is like oxygen,” she said. “You don’t notice it until you can’t breathe.”

Marshall joined the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)—the only female member at the time. Soon, she was president.

“Once you realize that what you’ve been taught is not reality, it influences the way you look at the rest of the world.”

She argued for freedom, organized marches, protested banned books and torture, wrote letters to the press, raised money for black families whose loved ones had been arrested, and boldly asked Robert F. Kennedy to visit. He said yes.

On June 5, 1966 she met Kennedy at Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport and escorted him to Cape Town. The next day, he delivered the National Union of South Africa Students’ annual Day of Affirmation Speech, a speech that is widely considered to be the greatest of his life.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” Kennedy told the crowd, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

These were among the darkest days of apartheid, and Kennedy provided a light.

“Robert Kennedy was the first person who made me feel that what I was feeling, and what I was critical of, was part of a great human movement toward equality for all people,” Marshall remembered.

As she continued to stand up to South Africa’s repressive regime, Marshall knew she was in increasing danger. Government officials tapped her phone and police followed her. Other white anti-apartheid activists—her friends—were under house arrest.

Still, the fact that she was white worked to her advantage. As did being a woman.

“It was unusual for a woman to do what I was doing. The combination of being white and a woman made it more difficult for the South African government to move against me more quickly than it did. Certainly, remaining in South Africa would not have been safe.”

With the help of political activists and others who wanted her to be safe, Marshall returned to the US at the age of twenty-two.

Soon her moral outrage toward injustice was combined with a passion for the rule of law and degrees from Harvard and Yale.

She blazed a trail as a young female attorney—simply for being a young female attorney when everyone else in a courtroom was male. Then in 1999 she became Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts—the first woman to hold that position in the court’s more than 300-year history.

Although she is most well known for her landmark decision in 2003 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage, there were so many other ways Marshall’s groundbreaking work championed access to justice for all.

She fought for gender equality in judicial proceedings, broke down language barriers in the courthouse and established procedures to help litigants forced to represent themselves because they could not afford attorneys.

The little girl who dared not dream as a child has spent her life fulfilling the dreams of others.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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