Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall became the 1st African American man to serve as Justice of the Supreme Court. Throughout his career he possessed tenacity and resilience in ending legal segregation by becoming a legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In that work, he broke barriers in American history by guiding the litigation to eradicate the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow segregation laws. Moreover, he became victorious in his position as Justice of the Supreme Court by crafting a distinctive jurisprudence marked by uncompromising liberalism, unusual attentiveness to practical considerations beyond the formalities of law, and an indefatigable willingness to dissent.
Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908 and was the grandson of a slave. Marshall’s father religiously instilled morals and values in his son’s upbringing as well as an appreciation for the United States Constitution, including the rule of law. As a result, his father’s words served as a strong foundation which later became evident in his profound role in law. Marshall completed high school in 1925 and later followed his brother, William Aubrey Marshall, to the historically black Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, his classmates at Lincoln included a distinguished group of future Black leaders who would later make their mark on the world. For example, poet and author Langston Hughes, the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and musician Cab Calloway. Before Marshall graduated from Lincoln University, he married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey. Sadly, their 25 year marriage ended with her untimely death from cancer in 1955.
Later in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was denied admission because he was black. He did not know that this event he perceived as a failure would later turn into one of the most ground breaking cases that would leverage his professional career and negate superficial college admittance procedures based on race. Thurgood sought admission at Howard University Law School and was accepted that same year. During that year, Marshall became deeply influenced by the new dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston instilled in all of his students the desire to apply the tenets of the Constitution to all Americans. In 1933, Marshall took on his first case involving the University of Maryland Law School which was the same Law school that denied his admission years before due to his skin color. He successfully sued the University of Maryland for the refusal of admitting a young African American Amherst University graduate by the name of Donald Gaines Murray due to race. Author H.L. Mencken celebrated Marshall’s victory by writing that the decision of denial by the University of Maryland Law School was “brutal and absurd,” and they should not object to the “presence among them of a self-respecting and ambitious young Afro-American well prepared for his studies by four years of hard work in a class A college.”
After accomplishing this huge milestone in his career, Thurgood Marshall followed his Howard University mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston to New York and later became Chief Counsel for the NAACP. During this period, Mr. Marshall was asked by the United Nations and the United Kingdom to help draft the constitutions of the emerging African nations of Ghana and what is now Tanzania. It was felt that the person who so successfully fought for the rights of America’s oppressed minority would be the perfect person to ensure the rights of the white citizens in these two former European colonies. After amassing an impressive record of Supreme Court challenges to state-sponsored discrimination, including the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954, President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In this capacity, he wrote over 150 decisions including support for the rights of immigrants, limiting government intrusion in cases involving illegal search and seizure, double jeopardy, and right to privacy issues. Biographers Michael Davis and Hunter Clark note that, “none of his (Marshall’s) 98 majority decisions was ever reversed by the Supreme Court.” In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson appointed Judge Marshall to the office of U.S. Solicitor General. Before his subsequent nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, Thurgood Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government. Thurgood Marshall lead an impeccable career in law by winning more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.
Until his retirement from the highest court in the land, Justice Marshall established a rapport by using his voice to enforce change to improve the lives of minority groups and improve laws to promote equality. Having honed his skills since the case against the University of Maryland, he developed a profound sensitivity to injustice by way of the crucible of racial discrimination in this country. As an Associate Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall left a legacy that expands that early sensitivity to include all of America’s voiceless. Justice Marshall died on January 24, 1993.
-Tammy Joyner, Claude Pepper Library Associate