GRUFF AND CURMUDGEONLY, U.S. SUPREME Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was nevertheless treasured by friends for his sense of humor. As an NAACP attorney trying a segregation ease in Little Rock in the '50s, Marshall received one of the death threats that came his way so often. "He was sharing a room with another attorney," recalls William Coleman, chairman of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, "and their names were written on the beds. But Thurgood changed the names, saying if someone cased the joint and decided to shoot, they'd hit the wrong guy. Thurgood could joke about things that were very important."

About everything, that is, but the law itself, which he regarded as sacrosanct. Marshall, who died of heart failure on Jan. 24 at age 84, was regarded by many as the most important American lawyer of the century. In 1967 Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he vigorously championed the rights of the pour and downtrodden. But this Baltimore native and great-grandson of a slave had achieved fame long before then. As a crusading NAACP attorney in the '40s and '50s, Marshall logged 50,000 miles a year. challenging the laws, mostly in Southern courts, that were the very backbone of officially sanctioned racial discrimination. All told, he won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation in 1954. "I can't think of another lawyer," says Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, "who has done as much for racial equality."

A battler in every sense, Marshall weathered a heart attack, blood clots and glaucoma but dually had to concede, in stepping down in 1991, "I'm old. And I'm killing apart." Such was the esteem in which .Marshall was-held that even his frequent opponents were moved. Chief Justice William Rehnquist embraced him; Sandra Day O'Connor wept. The news of the jurist's death was greeted similarly. "It's my belief," says NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, "that without Thurgood Marshall, we would still be riding in the back of the bus, going to separate schools and drinking 'colored water."