Thurgood Marshall was an influential figure in American history, known for his groundbreaking work as a civil rights lawyer and the first African American Supreme Court Justice. His tireless efforts in fighting for racial equality and individual rights left a lasting impact on the United States, shaping social policies and legal practices well beyond his lifetime.
Early life and education
Born on 2 July 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, Thurgood Marshall was the son of William Marshall, a railroad porter, and Norma Marshall, a teacher. He graduated with honours from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930. Denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School due to his race, Marshall pursued his law degree at Howard University Law School, where he excelled and graduated first in his class in 1933.
During his time at Howard, Marshall formed a strong connection with Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who inspired his students to use the law as a means for social transformation. This mentorship would prove instrumental in shaping Marshall’s career as a civil rights lawyer.
Early legal career
After graduating from Howard, Marshall opened a private practice law firm in Baltimore. One of his first major court victories was in 1935 when he successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying a Black applicant admission to its law school because of his race, in the case Murray v. Pearson. This case marked the beginning of Marshall’s long and successful legal career fighting for civil rights and racial equality.
In 1936, Marshall joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a staff lawyer. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Supreme Court cases and achievements
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Marshall established himself as one of the top attorneys in the United States, winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. These cases often centred around racial discrimination and civil rights issues, with Marshall passionately advocating for equality and justice.
Some of Marshall’s notable Supreme Court cases include:
- Chambers v. Florida (1940): Marshall successfully defended four convicted Black men who were coerced by police into confessing to murder.
- Smith v. Allwright (1944): In this landmark case, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas state law that authorised the use of whites-only primary elections in certain Southern states.
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): This case saw the Supreme Court strike down the legality of racially restrictive housing covenants.
- Sweatt v. Painter (1950): Marshall challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation established in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case. The court sided with Heman Marion Sweatt, a Black man who was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law due to his race, even though he had the option of “separate but equal” facilities.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Marshall’s most significant victory as a civil rights lawyer was in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). This case involved a group of Black parents whose children were required to attend segregated schools. They filed a class-action lawsuit, and the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” effectively dismantling racial segregation in American public schools.
Marshall married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey, just before graduating from Lincoln University. They were married for 25 years until her tragic death from cancer in 1955. Shortly after her passing, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat, with whom he had two sons.
Supreme Court appointment and tenure
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the US Court of Appeals. President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first Black Solicitor General four years later, paving the way for a Supreme Court nomination.
In 1967, following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson appointed Marshall as the first Black justice to the US Supreme Court. During his 24-year term, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions.
Throughout his tenure, Marshall developed a reputation as a dedicated and compassionate member of the court, championing civil rights, supporting affirmative action laws, and advocating for limits on criminal punishment.
In the case of Furman v. Georgia (1972), Marshall and Justice William J. Brennan argued that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances. Marshall was also part of the majority vote that ruled in favour of abortion rights in the landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) case.
However, his influence waned as the court shifted towards a more conservative stance towards the end of Marshall’s term. In 1991, he retired from the Supreme Court due to declining health. President George H. W. Bush appointed Justice Clarence Thomas as his replacement.
Thurgood Marshall quotes
Marshall’s eloquence and wisdom are evident in some of his best-known quotes:
- “In recognising the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
- “To protest against injustice is the foundation of all our American democracy.”
- “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
- “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.”
- “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.”
- “The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”
- “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
Death and legacy
Thurgood Marshall passed away from heart failure at the age of 84 in 1993. His contributions to civil rights and social justice continue to be honoured and celebrated today.
Texas Southern University law school was renamed and recognised as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1978 in tribute to the judge. Each year, the school ranks among the nation’s top five for the number of Black law graduates.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund was established in 1987, supporting nearly 300,000 students attending historically Black colleges, universities, medical schools, and law schools.
In 2017, the biographical drama “Marshall” was released, recounting the early cases of Thurgood Marshall’s career. The film helped to bring renewed public interest in the life and work of this esteemed civil rights leader and Supreme Court Justice.
Thurgood Marshall’s unwavering commitment to equality and justice forever shaped the American legal system, leaving a legacy for future generations.