A leader of the civil rights movement and the fight for racial justice—from his early days as a lawyer to his historic tenure on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Featured lessonThe Legacy of Criminal Justice Reform
Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908, in Baltimore—his father was a railroad porter and his mother, a schoolteacher. One of his great-grandfathers had been taken as a slave from the Congo to Maryland, where he was eventually freed. Growing up in Baltimore, Marshall experienced the racial discrimination that shaped his future career. After graduating from Lincoln University in 1930, he was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School due to segregation. Undeterred, he attended Howard University Law School, where he graduated first in his class, and went to work.
Marshall opened a law office in Baltimore and represented the local NAACP chapter in a successful lawsuit that challenged the University of Maryland Law School over its segregation policy. He brought lawsuits that integrated other state universities as well. In 1936, he became the NAACP’s chief legal counsel and founded their Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1940, becoming the key strategist in the effort to end racial segregation. In particular, he challenged Plessy v. Ferguson, the legal doctrine that called for “separate but equal.” Marshall won a series of court decisions that gradually struck down that doctrine, ultimately leading to Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953. “Separate but equal” was finally overturned. According to Marshall, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.” In 1957, LDF, led by Marshall, became a successful entity on its own and remains so.
As a lead legal architect of the civil rights movement, Marshall constantly traveled to small courtrooms throughout the South and, at one point, oversaw as many as 450 simultaneous cases. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged a whites-only primary election in Texas. Then, in 1961, President Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit—while there, he wrote 112 opinions, none of which were overturned. Four years later, he was appointed by President Johnson to be solicitor general, and in 1967, after being nominated by Johnson, he became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.
Marshall’s voice on the court was a liberal one. He was a proponent of judicial activism, who believed that the United States had a moral imperative to move progressively forward. Marshall was determined to address remnants of Jim Crow. In particular, he wrote over 150 opinions dissenting from cases in which the court refused to hear death penalty appeals. He served 24 years before retiring in 1991, and, after his death in 1993, the court approved a special resolution honoring him. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “Inscribed above the front entrance to this Court building are the words, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ Surely no individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”
“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. … We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
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