Thurgood Marshall - U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Thurgood Marshall was special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a U.S. Supreme Court justice during the 20th-century Civil Rights movement of the United States.

Marshall is lionized for his argument before the Supreme Court in the case Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the federal sanction of segregation in public schools. He was also the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Thurgood Marshall was born Thoroughgood Marshall on June 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a steward at a country club, and his mother was an elementary school teacher. Marshall was named for his paternal grandfather, a slave from the Congo who won his freedom.

His grandfather had chosen the name Thoroughgood when he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. At age six, Marshall legally had his name changed to Thurgood due to criticism from his peers.

Marshall was a self-proclaimed hell-raiser in elementary school and was first introduced to the Constitution of the United States when he was forced to read it as punishment. He took great interest in Article III, which concerned the judiciary branch, and also in the Bill of Rights. Even from an early age, he was troubled by civil rights abuses.

Marshall graduated with honors from Douglas High School in Baltimore, Maryland, and then attended the all-black Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the oldest African-American institute of higher education in the country. In his junior year Marshall married his first wife, Vivian Burey. The next year, Marshall graduated Lincoln University.

Experience on the debate team at Lincoln University had inspired Marshall to major in prelaw. After graduation Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was rejected due to his race. He then turned to Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.

It was there that Marshall met Charles Hamilton Houston, the vigorous vice dean of the Howard law school. Houston inspired Marshall’s interest in constitutional law and instilled in him the idea of lawyers as “social engineers” capable of effecting change for the African-American community.

Marshall graduated Howard University Law School as valedictorian and opened a law practice in Baltimore. Marshall acted as legal counsel to the local chapter of the NAACP.

In 1933 Marshall argued his first major court case with the NAACP, in which he won the first African-American student, Donald Gaines Murray, a place in the University of Maryland Law School, the school that had rejected Marshall. In fact, Murray was the first African-American student to enter a state law school below the Mason-Dixon Line.

In 1935 Charles Hamilton Houston became chief counsel for the NAACP. A year later, Marshall joined the New York City chapter of the NAACP as Houston’s assistant. When Houston retired to private practice in 1938, Marshall took over as chief counsel for the NAACP. Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) to attack segregation through judicial and legislative means.

Throughout the 1950s Marshall traveled the South arguing civil rights cases before state and federal courts. He received several death threats during this tour and narrowly avoided a lynching. Of the 32 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP, he won 29.

In 1954 Marshall won the landmark case for the NAACP, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The unanimous Supreme Court decision overruled the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent. A year after the Brown v. Board decision, Marshall’s wife, Vivian Burey, died; Marshall remarried the same year. His second wife, Cecilia Suyat, was a secretary at the NAACP’s New York City office.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit. Marshall struggled with the decision to leave behind 23 years as the NAACP head counsel, but ultimately followed his sense of duty to his country.

After serving three years on the Court of Appeals, Marshall was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as solicitor general of the United States, the third-highest office in the Justice Department.

President Johnson proceeded to nominate Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall’s nomination was confirmed in the Senate 69 to 11, and he was sworn in as the first African-American Supreme Court justice on October 2, 1967. Marshall served on the court for almost 24 years.

On the liberal Warren court, Marshall joined a majority in favor of civil rights for minorities and the expansion of rights for all citizens. Marshall focused his energy on negotiating unanimity among his fellow justices to increase the weight of the Warren Court’s rulings.

However, as the court grew more conservative in the 1970s and 1980s, Marshall became famous for his vehement minority dissents, arguing in favor of affirmative action, due process, and First Amendment rights, and against the death penalty.

Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 24, 1993. His legacy as Mr. Civil Rights marked him in history alongside activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.