1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Thurgood Marshall

The First African American to Serve on the U.S. Supreme Court

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Picture of Thurgood Marshall.

Portrait of American jurist and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. (circa 1960)

(Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Who Was Thurgood Marshall?

Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of slaves, was the first African American justice appointed to the United States Supreme Court, where he served from 1967 to 1991. Earlier in his career, Marshall was a pioneering civil rights attorney who successfully argued the landmark case Brown v Board of Education (a major step in the fight to desegregate American schools). The 1954 Brown decision is considered one of the most significant civil rights victories of the 20th century.

Dates: July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993

Also Known As: Thoroughgood Marshall (born as), "Great Dissenter"

Famous Quote: "It is interesting to me that the very people…that would object to sending their white children to school with Negroes are eating food that has been prepared, served, and almost put in their mouths by the mothers of those children."

Childhood

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 24, 1908, Thurgood Marshall (named "Thoroughgood" at birth) was the second son of Norma and William Marshall. Norma was an elementary school teacher and William worked as a railroad porter. When Thurgood was two years old, the family moved to Harlem in New York City, where Norma earned an advanced teaching degree at Columbia University. The Marshalls returned to Baltimore in 1913 when Thurgood was five years old.

Thurgood and his brother, Aubrey, attended an elementary school for blacks only and their mother taught in one as well. William Marshall, who had never graduated from high school, worked as a waiter in a whites-only country club.

By second grade, young Marshall, weary of being teased about his unusual name and equally weary of writing it out, shortened it to “Thurgood.”

In high school, Marshall earned decent grades, but had a tendency to stir up trouble in the classroom. As punishment for some of his misdeeds, he was ordered to memorize portions of the U.S. Constitution. By the time he left high school, Thurgood Marshall knew the entire Constitution by memory.

Marshall always knew that he wanted to go to college, but realized his parents couldn't afford to pay his tuition. Thus, he began saving money while he was in high school, working as a delivery boy and a waiter. In September 1925, Marshall entered Lincoln University, an African American college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He intended to study dentistry.

College Years

Marshall embraced college life at Lincoln. He became the star of the debate club and joined a fraternity; he was also very popular with young women. Yet Marshall found himself ever aware of the need to earn money. He worked two jobs and supplemented that income with his earnings from winning card games on campus.

Armed with the defiant attitude that had gotten him into trouble in high school, Marshall was suspended twice for fraternity pranks. But Marshall was also capable of more serious endeavors, as when he helped to integrate a local movie theater. When Marshall and his friends attended a movie in downtown Philadelphia, they were ordered to sit in the balcony (the only place that blacks were allowed).The young men refused and sat in the main seating area. Despite being insulted by white patrons, they remained in their seats and watched the movie. From then on, they sat wherever they liked at the theater.

By his second year at Lincoln, Marshall had decided he didn't want to become a dentist, planning instead to use his oratory gifts as a practicing attorney. (Marshall, who was six-foot-two, later joked that his hands were probably too big for him to have become a dentist.)

Marriage and Law School

In his junior year at Lincoln, Marshall met Vivian "Buster" Burey, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. They fell in love and, despite Marshall's mother's objections (she felt they were too young and too poor), married in 1929 at the beginning of Marshall's senior year.

After graduating from Lincoln in 1930, Marshall enrolled at Howard University Law School, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. where his brother Aubrey was attending medical school. (Marshall's first choice had been the University of Maryland Law School, but he was refused admission because of his race.) Norma Marshall pawned her wedding and engagement rings to help her younger son pay his tuition.

Marshall and his wife lived with his parents in Baltimore to save money. From there, Marshall took the train to Washington every day and worked three part-time jobs to make ends meet. Thurgood Marshall's hard work paid off. He rose to the top of the class in his first year and won the plum job of assistant in the law school library. There he worked closely with the man who became his mentor, law school dean Charles Hamilton Houston.

Houston, who resented the discrimination he had suffered as a soldier during World War I, had made it his mission to educate a new generation of African American lawyers. He envisioned a group of attorneys who would use their law degrees to fight racial discrimination. Houston was convinced that the basis for that fight would be the U.S. Constitution itself. He made a profound impression upon Marshall.

While working in the Howard law library, Marshall came into contact with several lawyers and activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He joined the organization and became an active member.

Thurgood Marshall graduated first in his class in 1933 and passed the bar exam later that year.

Working for the NAACP

Marshall opened his own law practice in Baltimore in 1933 at the age of 25. He had few clients at first and most of those cases involved minor charges, such as traffic tickets and petty thefts. It did not help that Marshall's budding business was begun in the midst of the Great Depression.

Marshall became increasingly active in the local NAACP, recruiting new members for its Baltimore branch. Because he was well-educated, light-skinned, and dressed well, however, he sometimes found it difficult to find common ground with some African Americans. Some felt Marshall had an appearance closer to that of a white man than to one of their own race. But Marshall's down-to-earth personality and easy communication style helped to win over many new members.

Soon, Marshall began taking cases for the NAACP and was hired as part-time legal counsel in 1935. As his reputation grew, Marshall became known not only for his skill as a lawyer, but also for his bawdy sense of humor and love of story-telling.

In the late 1930s, Marshall represented African American teachers in Maryland who were receiving only half the pay that white teachers earned. Marshall won equal-pay agreements in nine Maryland school boards and in 1939, convinced a federal court to declare unequal salaries for public school teachers unconstitutional.

Marshall also had the satisfaction of working on a case, Murray v Pearson, in which he helped a black man gain admission to the University of Maryland Law School in 1935. That same school had rejected Marshall only five years earlier.

NAACP Chief Counsel

In 1938, Marshall was named chief counsel to the NAACP in New York. Thrilled about having a steady income, he and Buster moved to Harlem, where Marshall had first gone with his parents as a young child. Marshall, whose new job required extensive travel and an immense workload, typically worked on discrimination cases in areas such as housing, labor, and travel accommodations.

Marshall worked hard and in 1940, won the first of his Supreme Court victories in Chambers v Florida, in which the Court overturned the convictions of four black men who had been beaten and coerced into confessing to a murder.

For another case, Marshall was sent to Dallas to represent a black man who had been summoned for jury duty and who had been dismissed when court officers realized he was not white. Marshall met with Texas governor James Allred, whom he successfully persuaded that African Americans had a right to serve on a jury. The governor went a step further, promising to provide Texas Rangers to protect those blacks who served on juries from any physical harm. Marshall had accomplished a great feat without ever entering a courtroom.

Yet not every situation was so easily managed. Marshall had to take special precautions whenever he traveled, especially when working on controversial cases. He was protected by NAACP body guards and had to find safe housing — usually in private homes — wherever he went. Despite these security measures, Marshall — the target of numerous threats — often feared for his safety. He was forced to use evasive tactics, such as wearing disguises and switching to different cars during trips.

On one occasion, Marshall was taken into custody by a group of policemen while in a small Tennessee town working on a case. He was forced from his car and driven to an isolated area near a river where an angry mob of white men awaited. Marshall's companion, another black attorney, followed the police car and refused to leave until Marshall was released. The police, perhaps because the witness was a prominent Nashville attorney, turned around and drove Marshall back to town. Marshall was convinced he would have been lynched if not for his friend's refusal to leave.

Separate But Not Equal

Marshall continued to make significant gains in the battle for racial equality in the areas of both voting rights and education. He argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 (Smith v Allwright), claiming that Texas Democratic Party rules unfairly denied blacks the right to vote in primaries. The Court agreed, ruling that all citizens, regardless of race, had the constitutional right to vote in primaries.

In 1945, the NAACP made a momentous change in its strategy. Instead of working to enforce the "separate but equal" provision of the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision, the NAACP strove to achieve equality in a different way. Since the notion of separate but equal facilities had never truly been accomplished in the past (public services for blacks were uniformly inferior to those for whites), the only solution would be to make all public facilities and services open to all races.

Two important cases tried by Marshall between 1948 and 1950 contributed greatly to the eventual overturning of Plessy v Ferguson. In each case (Sweatt v Painter and McLaurin v Oklahoma State Regents), the universities involved (University of Texas and University of Oklahoma) failed to provide for black students an education equal to that provided for white students. Marshall successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the universities did not provide equal facilities for either student. The Court ordered both schools to admit black students into their mainstream programs.

Overall, between 1940 and 1961, Marshall won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brown v Board of Education

In 1951, a court decision in Topeka, Kansas became the stimulus for Thurgood Marshall's most significant case. Oliver Brown of Topeka had sued that city's Board of Education, claiming that his daughter was forced to travel a long distance from her home just to attend a segregated school. Brown wanted his daughter to attend the school nearest their home — a school designated for whites only. The U.S. District Court of Kansas disagreed, asserting that the African American school offered an education equal in quality to the white schools of Topeka.

Marshall headed up the appeal of the Brown case, which he combined with four other similar cases and filed as Brown v Board of Education. The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1952.

Marshall made it clear in his opening statements to the Supreme Court that what he sought was not merely a resolution for the five individual cases; his goal was to end racial segregation in schools. He argued that segregation caused blacks to feel innately inferior. The opposing lawyer argued that integration would harm white children.

The debate went on for three days. The court adjourned on December 11, 1952, and did not convene on Brown again until June 1953. But the justices did not render a decision; instead, they requested that the attorneys supply more information. Their main question: Did the attorneys believe that the 14th Amendment, which addresses citizenship rights, prohibited segregation in schools? Marshall and his team went to work to prove that it did.

After hearing the case again in December 1953, the Court did not come to a decision until May 17, 1954. Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that the Court had come to the unanimous decision that segregation in the public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Marshall was ecstatic; he always believed he would win, but was surprised that there were no dissenting votes.

The Brown decision did not result in overnight desegregation of southern schools. While some school boards did begin making plans for desegregating schools, few southern school districts were in a hurry to adopt the new standards.

Loss and Remarriage

In November 1954, Marshall received devastating news about Buster. His 44-year-old wife had been ill for months, but had been misdiagnosed as having the flu or pleurisy. In fact, she had incurable cancer. However, when she found out, she inexplicably kept her diagnosis a secret from her husband. When Marshall learned how very ill Buster was, he set all work aside and took care of his wife for nine weeks before she died in February 1955. The couple had been married for 25 years. Because Buster had suffered several miscarriages, they had never had the family they so desired.

Marshall mourned deeply, but did not remain single for long. In December 1955, Marshall married Cecilia "Cissy" Suyat, a secretary at the NAACP. He was 47, and his new wife was 19 years his junior. They went on to have two sons, Thurgood, Jr. and John.

Leaving the NAACP to Work for the Federal Government

In September 1961, Thurgood Marshall was rewarded for his years of brilliant legal work when President John F. Kennedy appointed him a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Although he hated to leave the NAACP, Marshall accepted the nomination. It took nearly a year for him to be approved by the Senate, many of whose members still resented his involvement in school desegregation.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson named Marshall to the post of Solicitor General of the United States. In this role, Marshall was responsible for representing the government when it was being sued by a corporation or an individual. In his two years as solicitor general, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

On June 13, 1967, President Johnson announced Thurgood Marshall as the nominee for Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacancy created by Justice Tom C. Clark's departure. Some southern senators — notably Strom Thurmond — fought against Marshall's confirmation, but Marshall was confirmed and then sworn in on October 2, 1967. At the age of 59, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marshall took a liberal stance in most of the Court's rulings. He consistently voted against any form of censorship and was strongly opposed to the death penalty. In the 1973 Roe v Wade case, Marshall voted with the majority to uphold a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. Marshall was also in favor of affirmative action.

As more conservative justices were appointed to the Court during the Republican administrations of Reagan, Nixon, and Ford, Marshall found himself increasingly in the minority and often found his was the lone voice of dissent. He became known as "The Great Dissenter."

In 1980, the University of Maryland honored Marshall by naming its new law library after him. Still bitter about how the university had rejected him 50 years earlier, Marshall refused to attend the dedication.

Marshall resisted the idea of retirement, but by the early 1990s, his health was failing and he had problems with both his hearing and vision. On June 27, 1991, Thurgood Marshall submitted his letter of resignation to President George H. W. Bush. Marshall was replaced by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure on January 24, 1993 at the age of 84; he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Marshall was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in November 1993.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. 20th Century History
  4. Important People
  5. Thurgood Marshall - Biography

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.