In 1978, an anguished Justice Thurgood Marshall sat down with pen in hand and began drafting a personal plea to his colleagues about the case known as University of California Regents v. Bakke, the first real challenge to affirmative action that the Supreme Court had confronted.

Marshall feared that the court was going to strike down race preferences in university admissions, according to newly available papers from his Supreme Court files. A vote tally that he recorded during the court's discussions showed the case would be close.

"I wish to address the question of whether Negroes have 'arrived,' " he wrote. "Just a few examples illustrate that Negroes most certainly have not. In our own Court, we have had only three Negro law clerks here, and not so far have we had a Negro officer of this court. On a broader scale, this week's U.S. News and World Report has a story about 'Who Runs America.' They list some 83 persons -- not one Negro, even as a would-be runnerup. . . . "

"The dream of America as the melting pot has not been realized by Negroes -- either the Negro did not get into the pot, or he did not get melted down."

By the end of the case, a bare majority did agree that it was permissible for colleges to use race as one factor in admissions -- although the force of the court's ultimate holding was clouded because so many justices wrote separate opinions. Marshall's published opinion struck out at the court for failing to end the persistent inequities that separate blacks from whites.

Marshall's writings in the Bakke case, including his handwritten first draft of the plea he wrote to his colleagues as well as a slightly revised typed version, are contained in the papers that the late justice left to the Library of Congress after his retirement in 1991.

The papers, which became available after his death in January, display what many court historians consider Marshall's most meaningful contribution to the court: a view of the real world beyond the briefs and formal arguments.

In the areas he most cared about -- civil rights, criminal justice, privacy -- Marshall was utterly certain about where he stood, unyielding, activist and just a tad difficult.

While other justices often couched disagreement in euphemisms, he was more direct: "I believe we are simply not in accord," he wrote to Justice Lewis F. Powell on June 16, 1986, refusing to compromise in an opinion he was writing forbidding the execution of murderers found to be insane.

He let his law clerks know what he disliked, frequently scrawling "NO!" in giant letters on the face of some disfavored draft opinion.

When a subject did not interest or engage him, Marshall let others take the lead. His papers contain few examples of Marshall expressing himself on the more routine subjects that comprise the bulk of the court's annual docket.

In these matters, the papers underscore the extent to which he relied on his longtime friend, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. In a 1990 case involving social security benefits, for example, a Marshall clerk encouraged him in a memo to go one way, but noted "that WJB's clerk is advising" Brennan to go the other. Marshall's message back to the clerk was clear: Next to Brennan's initials, he jotted "add TM." The final decision in the case shows that Brennan and Marshall voted together.

The Brennan-Marshall relationship was among the closest between two justices in court history. The diminutive, smiling Irishman from New Jersey and the huge, gruff-sounding civil rights pioneer from Baltimore grew old together, retiring within about a year of each other after serving a combined 57 years on the court.

Marshall spent the first half of his legal career trying to influence the court from the outside. As chief attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Marshall won two dozen important civil rights cases, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared an end to state-sponsored school segregation.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the bench in 1967, the liberalism of Chief Justice Earl Warren, embodied in rulings such as Brown, was still strong.

But as appointments by Republican presidents turned the court in a more conservative direction, he and Brennan and Justice Harry A. Blackmun formed a consistent voice in opposition.

A consciousness of this special relationship comes through in the memos exchanged among them. "We three are in dissent in the above," Brennan wrote Marshall and Blackmun during a 1988 case concerning the legality of setting aside a percentage of government contracts for minority businesses. "Would you, Thurgood, take it on?"

"Dear Thurgood," Blackmun wrote later in the same case, Richmond v. Croson. "Please join me in your perceptive and incisive opinion. I may add a brief paragraph or two of my own."

Their common foe, often, was Warren E. Burger, who succeeded Warren in 1969 and served as chief justice until he retired in 1986. With Burger, Marshall could be ill-tempered, as demonstrated by their exchange of memos in a 1985 case, Ake v. Oklahoma.

The central question in the case was whether the Constitution entitled a murder defendant to a state-financed psychiatrist to help him prove that he was insane when he committed the crime.

From the outset, all justices said yes, except William H. Rehnquist, then an associate justice. But the justices were divided over how broadly the opinion should be written. Marshall had the assignment of drafting the majority's opinion.

There were two main options: a decision that would make psychiatrists available only for defendants who faced execution, or a broader holding that would allow psychiatric assistance for all defendants accused of serious crimes. Marshall chose the more expansive view.

A majority of justices said they leaned toward Marshall's approach, but Burger was bothered by the breadth of Marshall's draft.

"The fact that this is a capital {death penalty} case is barely mentioned," Burger complained in a Dec. 8, 1984, memo. "The prospect of a capital sentence is critical to this case. I doubt that the {Constitution} requires states to provide expert witnesses generally to all criminal defendants. . . . Sorry to be so long, but these points are important."

Marshall refused to narrow his opinion. Burger then made another effort to find common ground, sending Marshall a note saying, "I can join you" if "you will insert" four words limiting the holding to death penalty cases.

Burger's attempt at compromise was typical of the give-and-take of opinion drafting. Marshall's response was not.

Addressing himself to his other six allies in the case and sending a copy to Burger, Marshall wrote on Jan. 3, 1985: "Since seven of us agree, my current plan is not to make the change suggested in the Chief's ultimatum."

Burger replied the same day, somewhat mystified. "I have a copy of your memo of today," Burger wrote. "I did not know I sent you an 'ultimatum.' I rarely start a new year with such! It states only the obvious to say that this holding applies only to a capital case, but if you and those who have joined do not agree, I will try my hand at a separate opinion."

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens gently encouraged Marshall to make the change. "I am still with you if you decide to accommodate the Chief's request," O'Connor said.

"You have my proxy either way," Stevens wrote, but "it would be advantageous to have his {Burger's} name on the opinion {rather} than to have him write separately."

Marshall stood firm. On Jan. 8, he wrote Burger a one-sentence memo, saying he had "carefully considered your memorandum and cannot see my way clear to making the change you suggest."

That left the chief justice on his own. He wrote a separate opinion, saying that in his view, the ruling applied only to capital cases.

Justice Was Advocate For Criminal Defendants

Burger liked to narrow the law; Marshall liked to stretch it. Particularly if it benefited the poor or minorities, Marshall would push it as far as he could. He believed that criminal defendants should have a chance to defend themselves at every turn and he tried to fight off other justices' attempts to restrict state prisoners' appeals of their cases to federal court.

In the 1986 case Vasquez v. Hillery, for example, Marshall battled with Powell over the fate of a convicted murderer who was black and alleged that blacks were systematically excluded from the grand jury that had indicted him.

Powell wrote to Marshall that an improperly composed grand jury might be grounds for invalidating an indictment, but that he was concerned about the timeliness of Vasquez's appeal. Powell noted that Vasquez, who was sentenced to death in 1962, had not raised the issue in federal court until 1978. "It could well be that the court's opinion in this case will encourage convicted persons with long sentences to defer seeking" relief in federal courts "until retrial becomes difficult or impossible," he said in a Nov. 7, 1985.

Marshall, after detailing the prisoner's repeated attempts to appeal to state and federal courts over the years, added, "{I}t is hard for me to believe that any prisoner would voluntarily sit in jail for years, knowing he has a meritorious claim that could result in his freedom."

Unlimited Time to Review Grand Jury's Selection

In the end, Marshall wrote for the majority that a defendant's conviction should be reversed if he was indicted by a grand jury that was chosen in a discriminatory way, no matter how much time has passed since the indictment. Powell and two other justices dissented.

Small things were a matter of principle, too, for Marshall. In October 1990, he received the customary circular from the chief justice inviting the associate justices to attend the annual "Christmas recess party" at the court.

From Marshall came a dissent: "As usual, I will not attend the Christmas Party, but I will pay my share of the bill. I still believe in separation of church and state."

Staff writers Ben Weiser, Bob Woodward and researcher David Greenberg contributed to this report.