Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights lawyer who used the courts to fight Jim Crow and dismantle segregation in the U.S. Marshall was a towering figure who became the nation's first Black United States Supreme Court Justice. He is best known for arguing the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" unconstitutional in public schools.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930. He applied to the University of Maryland Law School but was rejected because he was Black. Marshall received his law degree from Howard University Law School in 1933, graduating first in his class. At Howard, he met his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged Marshall and his classmates to use the law for social change.
The Legal Eagle
After graduating from Howard, one of Marshall's first legal cases was against the University of Maryland Law School in the 1935 case Murray v. Pearson. Working with his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, Marshall sued the school for denying admission to Black applicants solely on the basis of race. The legal duo successfully argued that the law school violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of protection of the law, an amendment that addresses citizenship and the rights of citizens.
Soon after, Marshall joined Houston at NAACP as a staff lawyer. In 1940, he was named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was created to mount a legal assault against segregation.
Marshall became one of the nation's leading attorneys. He argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning 29. Some of his notable cases include:
- Smith v. Allwright (1944), which found that states could not exclude Black voters from primaries
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which struck down race-based restrictive housing covenants
- Sweatt v. Painter(1950), which deemed separate facilities for Black professional and graduate students unconstitutional
Marshall's most famous case was the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Educationcase in which Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren noted, "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Marshall's civil rights litigation work continues to this day.
A Supreme Legacy
President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Marshall U.S. solicitor general and on Aug. 30, 1967, Marshall was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and joined the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first Black justice.
During his nearly 25-year tenure on the Supreme Court, Marshall fought for affirmative action for minorities, held strong against the death penalty, and supported of a woman's right to choose if an abortion was appropriate for her. The civil rights lawyer turned Supreme Court justice made a significant impact on American society and culture. His mission was equal justice for all. Marshall used the power of the courts to fight racism and discrimination, tear down Jim Crow segregation, change the status quo, and make life better for the most vulnerable in our nation.