Cecilia Marshall, LDF founder Thurgood Marshall’s Wife, dies at 94

The loss of Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat Marshall is sincerely mourned by the Legal Defense Fund (LDF). The nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice and wife of LDF’s founder, Thurgood Marshall, Ms. Marshall served on the organization’s board of directors for many years and was a persistent advocate for equal justice.

The extensive planning for the Brown v. Board of Education trial, which invalidated the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination and irrevocably altered the American landscape, involved Ms. Marshall as a young employee of the NAACP branch that would later become LDF.

Ms. Marshall, sometimes known as Cissy, was born Cecilia Suyat on the Hawaiian island of Maui on July 20, 1928, to Filipino parents. Ms. Marshall was initially shielded from the severe racial discrimination that afflicted America until she traveled to the mainland United States by the island’s variety and distance from the country, which it would not join as a state until 1959. She strongly opposed racial prejudice as a young adult and got fully involved in the struggle for racial justice.

She firmly stood by Mr. Marshall through some of the most challenging times of his career after they were married in 1955, including his acrimonious Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Tributes to Cecilia Marshall:

Janai Nelson, LDF’s President, and Director-Counsel: “It is with a heavy heart that we received the news today of Ms. Marshall’s passing. Ms. Marshall was a civil rights activist, historian, mother, grandmother, widow of LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall, and a phenomenal supporter of LDF – including as a devoted member of our Board of Directors.

She also had a robust sense of humor, was kind-hearted, and exuded a mighty force belied by her petite stature. She was a cherished member of the LDF family, and we extend our deepest condolences to her immediate and extended family who shared her with us so generously over the years.”

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Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s seventh President, and Director-Counsel: “It saddens me deeply to learn of the passing of Mrs. Marshall, who was a faithful member of the LDF Board, and a great lady. It was my absolute honor to have the opportunity to get to know her and to bring her closer to the fold of the LDF family during my time as Director-Counsel.


Her devotion to LDF, the organization her husband founded and where she once worked as a secretary in her early days, remained undiminished, and she took her Board service seriously. She was the recipient of numerous awards from LDF and lent her name and support to our efforts to support young civil rights lawyers, most recently through the launch of LDF’s Marshall-Motley Scholars Program.

“But what I appreciated most was Mrs. Marshall’s warmth, energy, and sense of humor – and her fulsome embrace of LDF’s leaders and staff. She was a meticulous caretaker of her husband’s legacy and was delighted in seeing the growth of young LDF lawyers who were following the path he created. Mrs. Marshall also revered the Supreme Court and enjoyed her membership in the circle of spouses of former Supreme Court justices. On the rare occasions when she attended oral arguments in the Court, it always seemed to me that everyone sat up a little bit straighter. I know I did. I extend my deepest condolences to the entire Marshall family and to my former colleagues on the Board and staff at LDF, in this monumental loss of our beloved Board member.”

Cecilia Marshall’s early life.

On July 20, 1928, Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat was born in Pu’unene, Maui, in the state of Hawaii. She was 94 years old. In 1910, her parents left the Philippines. Her mother passed away while she was a little child, and her father had a printing business. She has a large family and was raised in Hawaii.

Cecilia Marshall Family

On the recommendation of her father, Suyat relocated to New York City to live with her maternal uncle and aunt before beginning employment with the NAACP in Washington, D.C.

Cecilia Marshall’s marriage and personal life.

Suyat first met Thurgood Marshall and later wed him in 1955 after Vivian Burey, Marshall’s first wife, passed away from lung cancer. Marshall and Suyat got hitched on December 17, 1955. At St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, New York, the service was led by Roy Wilkins, the NAACP’s secretary. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks visited them in their apartment.

The parents of Thurgood Marshall Jr. and John W. Marshall, a former Virginia secretary of public safety and director of the U.S. Marshals Service, are Suyat and Marshall. According to Juan Williams, Suyat put a lot of effort into hiding Marshall’s outbursts of “frustration with the conservative court and what was left of the Civil Rights Movement” in his final years out of fear they would make him seem bad.