Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was an American civil rights lawyer, solicitor general, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, where his mother was a teacher and his father a headwaiter and country club steward. Parental qualities of thoroughness, excellence, justice, and equality, along with humility, pride, and aggressiveness, early impressed him. Marshall attended Lincoln University, where he received his bachelor's degree cum laude, and then enrolled in the law school at Howard University in 1930, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1933. While at Howard he came under the influence of Charles Houston and the group of legal scholars who developed and perfected techniques and procedures for civil rights litigation.
Passing the Maryland bar in 1933, Marshall practiced in Baltimore until 1938, serving also as counsel for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1935 he successfully attacked segregation and discrimination in education when he participated in the desegregation of the University of Maryland Law School (where he had been denied admission because of race). Marshall became director of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1939. A year earlier he had been admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the fourth, fifth, and eighth circuits, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Winning 29 of the 32 civil rights cases which he and his aides argued before the Supreme Court (and sometimes threatened with death as he argued cases in the lower courts of some southern states), Marshall earned the reputation of "America's outstanding civil rights lawyer." Some of the important cases he argued, which became landmarks in the destruction of segregation, as well as constitutional precedents with their decisions, include Smith v. Allwright (1944), establishing the rights of African-Americans to vote in Democratic primary elections; Morgan v. Virginia (1946), outlawing the state's segregation policy as applied to interstate bus transportation; Shelley v. Kramer (1948), outlawing restrictive covenants in housing; and Sweatt v. Painter (1950), requiring admission of an African-American student to the University of Texas Law School. The most famous was Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed segregation in public schools and for all practical purposes "sounded the death knell for all forms of legally sanctioned segregation."
The NAACP sent Marshall to Japan and Korea in 1951 to investigate complaints that African-American soldiers convicted by U. S. Army courts-martial had not received fair trials. His appeal arguments got the sentences of 22 of the 40 men reduced.
President John Kennedy nominated Marshall on Sept. 23, 1961, for judge of the Second Court of Appeals; he was confirmed by the Senate a year later after undergoing strenuous hearings. Three years later Marshall accepted President Lyndon Johnson's appointment as solicitor general. In this post Marshall successfully defended the United States in a number of important cases concerning industry. Of no little interest was the fact that through his office he now defended civil rights actions as advocate for the American people instead of (as in his NAACP days) as counsel strictly for African-Americans; however, he personally did not argue cases in which he had previously been involved.
In 1967 President Johnson nominated Marshall as associate justice to the U. S. Supreme Court. Marshall's nomination was strenuously opposed by several Southern senators on the Judiciary Committee but nevertheless he was confirmed by a vote of 69 to 11. He took his seat on October 2, 1967, and was the first African-American justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
During his nearly quarter-century on the Supreme Court, he remained a strong advocate of individual rights and never wavered in his devotion to ending discrimination. He formed a key part of the Court's progressive majority which voted to uphold a woman's right to abortion. His majority opinions covered such areas as ecology, the right of appeal of persons convicted of narcotic charges, failure to report for and submit to induction into the U. S. Armed Forces, obscenity, and the rights of Native Americans.
The Reagan-Bush years in the White House and the slow dwindling of the liberal influence on the Court was a time of sadness for Marshall. Always tart tongued, in 1987 Marshall dismissed President Reagan in an interview with Ebony as "the bottom" in terms of his commitment to black Americans. He later told the magazine: "I wouldn't do the job of dogcatcher for Ronald Reagan." There is no question that Marshall viewed the actions of the conservative Republican presidents as a throwback to the days when "we (African-Americans) didn't really have a chance." Marshall was keenly disappointed when his friend and liberal colleague, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., retired from the Court due to ill heath. Marshall vowed to serve until he was 110 and then die "shot by a jealous husband." However, suffering heart attacks, pneumonia, blood clots, and glaucoma, Marshall himself was forced by illness to give up his seat in 1991. He died in 1993 at the age of 84.
Justice Marshall had been born during Theodore Roosevelt's administration but lived to see African-Americans rise to positions of power and influence in America. To no small degree, the progress of black Americans toward equal opportunity turned upon the legal victories won by him. By his death, even in retirement, he had risen to the stature of mythic hero. His numerous honors included more than 20 honorary degrees from educational institutions in America and abroad. The University of Maryland Law School was named in his honor, as were a variety of elementary and secondary schools around the nation. During his life he received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (1946), the Negro Newspaper Publisher Association's Russwurm Medal (1948), and the Living Makers of Negro History Award of the lota Phi Lambda Sorority (1950), and his name was inscribed on the honor roll of the Schomburg History Collection of New York for the advancement of race relations. He enjoyed the family life of his second wife and their two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John, who themselves pursued careers in public life. Marshall's first wife died in 1955. A little over 6 feet tall and dignified and solemn in manner, but endowed with a sense of humor, Marshall portrayed homely virtues and a deep reverence for God. Unique as his career was, it epitomized the potential of American democracy.
Further Reading on Thurgood Marshall
For periodical articles dealing with Marshall's life and career, see Newsweek (Sept. 21, 1987 and Aug. 6, 1990). Of the numerous books on Marshall's life and career, a well-received analysis was contained in the twin volumes Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court 1936-1961 (1994) and Making Constitutional Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court 1961-1991 (1997) by Mark V. Thusnet. An early biography of Marshall is Lewis H. Fenderson, ed., Thurgood Marshall (1969).