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Thurgood Marshall

Photo courtesy of the LCJM Collection

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a U.S. Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate. Marshall earned an important place in American history on the basis of two accomplishments. First, as legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he guided the litigation that destroyed the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow segregation. Second, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court–the nation’s first black justice–he crafted a distinctive jurisprudence marked by uncompromising liberalism, unusual attentiveness to practical considerations beyond the formalities of law, and an indefatigable willingness to dissent. 

​Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, the grandson of a slave, worked as a steward at an exclusive club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher. One of William Marshall's favorite pastimes was to listen to cases at the local courthouse before returning home to rehash the lawyers' arguments with his sons. Thurgood Marshall later recalled, "Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don't know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table."

Marshall attended Baltimore's Colored High and Training School (later renamed Frederick Douglass High School), where he was an above-average student and put his finely honed skills of argument to use as a star member of the debate team. The teenaged Marshall was also something of a mischievous troublemaker. His greatest high school accomplishment, memorizing the entire United States Constitution, was actually a teacher's punishment for misbehaving in class.

After graduating from high school in 1926, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. There, he joined a remarkably distinguished student body that included Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana; Langston Hughes, the great poet; and Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer.

After graduating from Lincoln with honors in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite being overqualified academically, Marshall was rejected because of his race. This firsthand experience with discrimination in education made a lasting impression on Marshall and helped determine the future course of his career. Instead of Maryland, Marshall attended law school in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, another historically black school. The dean of Howard Law School at the time was the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. Marshall quickly fell under the tutelage of Houston, a notorious disciplinarian and extraordinarily demanding Thurgood Marshall argued thirty-two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, more than anyone else in history.

Between 1934 and 1961, as an attorney for the NAACP, Marshall traveled throughout the United States, representing all manner of clients whenever a dispute involved questions of racial justice–from trials for common crimes to appellate advocacy raising the most intricate matters of constitutional law. His exploits earned him the appellation “Mr. Civil Rights.” He argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, prevailing in twenty-nine of them. These cases include Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated the so-called white primary (the practice of barring blacks from the Democratic party primary in a state where that party controlled state government), Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which prohibited state courts from enforcing racially restrictive real estate covenants, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which invalidated state-enforced racial segregation in the public schools.

The next stage in Marshall’s career consisted of a series of high-level appointments. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him solicitor general, another racial “first.” And in 1967, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court, declaring that it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.”

Justice Marshall was an outspoken liberalon a Court dominated by conservatives. In his twenty-four year tenure, he voted to uphold gender and racial affirmative action policies in every case in which they were challenged. He dissented in every case in which the Supreme Court failed to overturn a death sentence and opposed all efforts to narrow or burden the right of women to obtain abortions. No justice has been more libertarian in terms of opposing government regulation of speech or private sexual conduct. Nor has any justice been more egalitarian in terms of advancing a view of the Constitution that imposes positive duties on government to provide certain important benefits to people–education, legal services, access to courts–regardless of their ability to pay for them. (

 

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.