It is often the case that when the average American is asked about Thurgood Marshall, the only thing that comes to mind is “the first Black Supreme Court Justice”. However, the story of Marshall’s upbringing and thrilling legal career is a deeper and more meaningful account. His life leaves a long legacy of excellence and a never-ending battle for civil rights.
Born July 2nd, 1908, Marshall had humble beginnings. Son of a steward and a schoolteacher, Marshall was named after his grandfather Thuroughgood, a brave man who had escaped from slavery during the Civil War. As a child, Thurgood was known for being a troublemaker and pulling pranks in school. Occasionally, Marshall’s principal would punish the boy by forcing him to read the Constitution. Ultimately, this routine exposure to the document inspired the young Marshall to memorize its contents and study its creation. In his free time, Marshall visited the local courthouse and watched cases with his father. These punishments from his principal and trips with his father were formative experiences for Marshall and ultimately inspired him to pursue a career studying and practicing law.
After earning his undergraduate degree from Lincoln University in 1930, Marshall applied to and was rejected by the University of Maryland School of Law because he was Black. Disappointed but not discouraged, Marshall decided to attend Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. It was here that the young law student discovered a passion and talent for civil rights law and was introduced to the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by Howard University’s vice-dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston acted as a mentor to Marshall and encouraged the young man to view the law not as an obstacle, but as a potential tool for social change.
After graduating from the top of his class at Howard in 1933, Marshall began working alongside Houston. In Pearson v. Murray, the duo appeared before the Maryland Court of Appeals to take on Marshall’s old dream school, the University of Maryland, for denying a black student admission to the college’s law program. Marshall and Houston won the case and compelled the university to integrate. Marshall was soon employed full-time by the NAACP and quickly gained notoriety as one of the best attorneys in the nation. Marshall also successfully defended the due process rights of wrongfully accused black defendants before the Supreme Court in Chambers v. Florida and struck down Texas’ “white primary” in Smith v. Allwright. With several landmark legal victories under their belt, Marshall and Houston set their sights on convincing the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and the “separate but equal” doctrine, a flawed legal concept that held that Black Americans could be segregated from white Americans so long as their conditions were the same.
In 1954, Marshall had his chance when the SCOTUS heard Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall sought to demonstrate that “separate but equal” was unfair in both practice and principle, and that the system of segregation never treated people of color equally. When asked by Justice Frankfurter what he meant by “equal”, Marshall replied, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.” By illustrating the psychological effects of segregation and exposing the policy’s immoral and unconstitutional foundation, Marshall convinced the Supreme Court to make a unanimous decision and throw out “separate but equal”, admit Plessy was wrongly decided, and acknowledge that all people must be given the same opportunity. In his storied career, Marshall argued cases before the Supreme Court 32 times and won 29 of them.
In 1961, despite intense southern opposition, President Kennedy appointed Marshall to become a federal judge. Under President Johnson, Marshall became the first black Solicitor General in 1965 before receiving recognition from Johnson as an indisputable legal talent and was nominated to become an associate justice on the Supreme Court. In a vote with 11 no votes, 20 abstentions, and 69 yes votes.
Thurgood Marshall made history and became the first Black justice ever confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. At Justice Marshall’s swearing-in, President Johnson observed,”Thurgood Marshall symbolizes what is best about our American society: the belief that human rights must be satisfied through the orderly processes of law…We shall have an advocate whose lifelong concern has been the pursuit of justice for his fellow man.” Justice Marshall’s confirmation was celebrated across the nation as a major milestone in the fight for equal opportunity.
On the bench, Marshall was just as fervent a protector of civil liberties as he was before . He viewed the Constitution as a living document that guarantees rights to all citizens. As an associate justice, Marshall fought for expanded civil rights, greater access to abortions, and restrictions on the use of harsh punishments like the death penalty. He also advocated for workers with his majority opinion in Teamsters v. Terry, First Amendment protections in Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza, and inmate access to adequate law libraries and assistance from legal professionals in Bounds v. Smith.
Early in his tenure, Marshall was able to find allies in other justices and write concurring opinions that promoted civil rights. However, as the court changed members, it took a sharp turn away from tolerance of these progressive ideals. Marshall often struggled to negotiate with his colleagues and became increasingly frustrated with the court’s opinions. Nevertheless, Marshall never strayed from his principles and tried to find common ground with other justices, no matter how much they disagreed. Still, Marshall was never one to mince words. When asked what he thought of President George H.W. Bush and his controversial pick for a new Supreme Court justice, Marshall replied, “It’s said that if you can’t say something good about a dead person, don’t say it. Well, I consider him dead.”
When it came time for Marshall to retire from public life, instead of dying on the bench, Marshall recognized when he could no longer perform the duties of the job and resigned in 1991. He would die only two years later of heart failure at the age of 84. Affectionately remembered as “Mr. Civil Rights”, Marshall stood on the front lines of the battle against segregation and fought to ensure that all peoples can contribute to the American experiment. He paved the way for further change and ended the segregation of the Supreme Court, opening the door for future justices to improve the court’s representation. Marshall, a brilliant legal mind, should be celebrated for his unwavering commitment to equal opportunity and civil liberties, his work as an attorney, his excellence on the bench, and the example that he set for all Americans. Furthermore, rather than simply being a once-in-a-generation lawyer and legal thinker, Thurgood Marshall was an engineer of social change and progress, the effects of which can be felt today.