Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993) was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the Court’s first African-American justice. Prior to his judicial service, he successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall graduated from the Howard University School of Law in 1933. He established a private legal practice in Baltimore before founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director.
In that position, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education, the latter of which held that racial segregation in public education is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as the United States Solicitor General. In 1967, Johnson successfully nominated Marshall to succeed retiring Associate Justice Tom C. Clark as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Marshall retired during the administration of President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and was succeeded by Clarence Thomas.
Thoroughgood Marshall Early Years
Thoroughgood Marshall was born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland; his father was a railroad porter and his mother a schoolteacher. After a brief period in New York City, the family moved to a racially diverse, largely middle class neighborhood in Baltimore called Druid Hill, although he attended segregated schools, graduating from the city’s Colored High School in 1924 when he was only 16 years old. (He shortened his name to Thurgood in the second grade.)
Marshall’s exposure to the law and the Constitution was unusually early. His father, William Marshall, never attended college, but he was fascinated by court trials and often took his son along with him. Marshall described himself as a “hell raiser” as a child, and while his naturally argumentative nature may have gotten him into a certain amount of trouble, it would prove a useful trait as a lawyer. One of Marshall’s punishments for talking too much involved the U.S. Constitution.
“Instead of making us copy out stuff on the blackboard after school when we misbehaved,” Marshall later recalled, “our teacher sent us down into the basement to learn parts of the Constitution. I made my way through every paragraph.”
These early experiences reinforced many of the deepest convictions that shaped Marshall’s professional career, including the importance of education for individual advancement, a deep respect for the legal profession, and the recognition of the bonds of family and community. “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Marshall said later.
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 teenage 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, poet Langston Hughes and jazz singer Cab Calloway.
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 professor. He recalled of Houston, “He would not be satisfied until he went to a dance on the campus and found all of his students sitting around the wall reading law books instead of partying.”
Marshall graduated magna cum laude from Howard in 1933. He briefly attempted to establish his own practice in Baltimore, but without experience, he failed to land any significant cases.
Early Life and Family
Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, was the grandson of an enslaved person who worked as a steward at an exclusive club, and his mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher.
One of William’s favorite pastimes was to listen to cases at the local courthouse before returning home to rehash the lawyers’ arguments with his sons. Thurgood 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.”
Personal Life and Wife
Marshall married Vivian “Buster” Burey in 1929, and the couple remained married until her death in 1955. Shortly thereafter, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat, his secretary at the NAACP. The couple had two sons together, Thurgood Jr. and John Marshall.
Marshall was the son of William Canfield Marshall, a railroad porter and a steward at an all-white country club, and Norma Williams Marshall, an elementary school teacher. He graduated with honours from Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) in 1930.
After being rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because he was not white, Marshall attended Howard University Law School; he received his degree in 1933, ranking first in his class. At Howard he was the protégé of Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged Marshall and other law students to view the law as a vehicle for social change.
Upon his graduation from Howard, Marshall began the private practice of law in Baltimore. Among his first legal victories was Murray v. Pearson (1935), a suit accusing the University of Maryland of violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws by denying an African American applicant admission to its law school solely on the basis of race.
In 1936 Marshall became a staff lawyer under Houston for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); in 1938 he became the lead chair in the legal office of the NAACP, and two years later he was named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s Marshall distinguished himself as one of the country’s top lawyers, winning 29 of the 32 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court.
Among them were cases in which the Court declared unconstitutional a Southern state’s exclusion of African American voters from primary elections (Smith v . Allwright ), state judicial enforcement of racial “restrictive covenants” in housing (Shelley v. Kraemer ), and “separate but equal” facilities for African American professionals and graduate students in state universities (Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents [both 1950]).
start of work
Marshall denied a postgraduate scholarship to Harvard in order to start his own practice and opened an office in east Baltimore. A few people did come to him for help, though unable to pay. Marshall turned none of them away. He began to develop his style as he took cases dealing with police brutality, evictions and harsh landlords. Marshall was respectful but forceful in presenting his case.
As his name began to gain notice, he earned big clients such as labor organizations, building associations, and corporations. Marshall started to volunteer with the NAACP and eventually became one of their attorneys, joining his mentor Houston to argue cases together. He won his first case arguing that the University of Maryland Law School should allow an African-American admission. In 1935, Houston got Marshall appointed as Assistant Special Counsel for New York in the organization.
From then on, the two began planning on how to have the Supreme Court overrule the separate but equal doctrine. After Houston resigned and Marshall took over as Special Counsel in 1938, he traveled to dangerous areas in the South in order to investigate lynching, the denial of voting rights, jury service, and fair trials to African-Americans. The face of the NAACP had soon become that of Marshall’s. In 1940, the NAACP set up a legal activist organization known as Fund, Inc., of which Marshall was hired to be special counsel.
He was able to work toward his goal of challenging segregation in education. He won his first Supreme Court case dealing with forced confession; and after President Truman rejected the separate but equal doctrine in relation to the G.I. Bill, Marshall was ready to bring the education issue into full light. Marshall finally got the case he had been hoping for, and in 1952 argued Brown v. Board of Education.
The case was reargued in 1953, and after 5 months of waiting, the Supreme Court delivered its opinion that invalidated the separate but equal doctrine. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Marshall as federal judge to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.
Marshall spent four years on the court, and none of his opinions were reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court. In 1965, President Johnson called upon Marshall to be the country’s next Solicitor General. Marshall was sworn into office, but only spent two years in the position. In 1967, the President appointed him as the first African-American to be an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marshall’s voice was a liberal one which held great influence early on in his term. As a proponent of judicial activism, he believed that the United States had a moral imperative to move progressively forward. He staunchly supported upholding individual rights, expanding civil rights, and limiting the scope of criminal punishment. Justice William Brennan shared many of Marshall’s opinions and they usually voted in the same bloc.
In Furman v. Georgia, these justices argued the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances, and dissented from the subsequent overruling opinion, Gregg v. Georgia, a few years later. He also made separate contributions to labor law (Teamsters v. Terry), securities law (TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc.), and tax law (Cottage Savings Ass’n v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue).
He had strong views on affirmative action and contributed greatly to opinions on constitutional law. Marshall maintained a down-to-earth style and would often joke with Chief Justice Burger as they passed in the hallways by asking “What’s shakin’, Chief baby?” As the court made a shift towards conservatism, however, Marshall became frustrated and his influence weakened.
Despite the change of currents, Marshall’s voice remained strong until his retirement, when he was succeeded by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Marshall died on January 24, 1993 of heart failure in Bethesda, Maryland.
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