Marshall’s work on behalf of civil rights spanned five-and-a-half decades and included the history-making Brown v. Board of Education ruling that led to integration of the nation’s public schools in 1954. As an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Marshall fought to have blacks admitted to then-segregated state universities, challenged the armed services to offer equal treatment for black recruits, and even assured that blacks would have the right to serve on a jury. John Hope Franklin put it this way: “For Black people he holds special significance because it was Thurgood, Charles Houston [Marshall’s law professor], and a few others who told us we could get justice through interpretation of the law…. Marshall was at the head of these lawyers who told us to hold fast because they were going to get the law on our side. And they did.”|
Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, into modest but prosperous circumstances. His mother worked as a teacher in a segregated public elementary school, and his father was a steward at the staunchly all-white Gibson Island yacht club. Marshall’s first name derives from a great-grandfather, Thoroughgood Marshall, who was brought to America from the Congo as a slave. Both of Thurgood Marshall’s grandfathers owned grocery stores. The judge told Ebony that he rarely felt uncomfortable about his race while growing up in Baltimore. He lived in a nice home on Druid Hill Avenue and played with children of both races. He described himself as a “mediocre” student and a “cutup,” whose punishment was often to read the U.S. Constitution out loud. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew it by heart.
In September of 1925, Marshall became a student at Lincoln University, near Philadelphia. He originally intended to study medicine and dentistry, but he changed to the humanities and began to consider a career in law. Williams notes that in college Marshall still was something of a cut-up — “he was thrown out of the college twice for fraternity pranks.” During his junior year, however, he married a student from the University of Pennsylvania, Vivian Burey.
The relationship settled him down, and he graduated cum laude from Lincoln in 1930. From there he moved to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he enrolled in the small, all-black law school. The course supervisor was Charles H. Houston, a demanding but inspiring instructor who instilled in his students a burning desire to change segregated society. Marshall graduated first in his class, earning his LLB in 1933. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar the same year.|
Returning to Baltimore, Marshall began working as a private practice lawyer. Williams noted, however, that the young lawyer “still made time for the fight against segregation. Representing the local NAACP, he negotiated with White store owners who sold to Blacks but would not hire them.” Marshall also took the case of a would-be law student who wanted to attend the all-white University of Maryland law school. The case against the university was Marshall’s first big one. His former professor came to town to help him argue it, and the judge gave them a favorable ruling. Soon thereafter, Marshall was invited to join the NAACP’s national office in New York City as an assistant special counsel. Two years later, in 1938, he became the head special counsel for the powerful organization.
“For the next 20 years,” Williams wrote, “[Marshall] traveled the country using the Constitution to force state and federal courts to protect the rights of Black Americans. The work was dangerous, and Marshall frequently wondered if he might not end up dead or in the same jail holding those he was trying to defend.” Marshall prepared cases against the University of Missouri and the University of Texas on behalf of black students. He petitioned the governor of Texas when a black was excluded from jury duty. During and after World War II, he was an outspoken opponent of the government detention of Japanese Americans, and in 1951 he investigated unfair court-martial practices aimed at blacks in the military in Korea and Japan. William H. Hastie, of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, told The New York Times: “Certainly no lawyer, and practically no member of the bench has Thurgood Marshall’s grasp of the doctrine of law as it affects civil rights.”
The limelight found Marshall in 1954, when he led the legal team that challenged public school segregation in the courts. The case advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling that ended a half-century of segregated schooling. Remembering those days when he worked on Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall told Ebony that the Court’s decision “probably did more than anything else to awaken the Negro from his apathy to demanding his right to equality.” At the time, however, Marshall was an opponent of civil disobedience for blacks in the South, feeling that organized opposition might lead to white violence — as indeed it did.
Marshall’s first wife died after a long illness in 1955. A year later, he married Cecilia Suyat, a secretary at the NAACP’s New York office. The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling had made Marshall a national figure — he was known for some time as “Mr. Civil Rights” — and when Democrats took control of the White House, the ambitious attorney let it be known that he wanted a judgeship.
Eventually, after much opposition from Southern senators and even from Robert Kennedy, Marshall was named to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1961. As the civil rights movement gained ground in the 1960s, so did Marshall. In 1965 he was given the post of United States solicitor general, a position in which he represented the government before the Supreme Court. His most important case during these years was the one leading to the adoption of the Miranda rule, which requires policemen to inform suspects of their rights.|
Named to Supreme Court
Against stiff opposition even in his own (Democratic) party, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall’s nomination was opposed most violently by four Southern senators on the Judiciary Committee, but nevertheless he was confirmed by a vote of 69 to 11. He was sworn in and took his seat on October 2, 1967, and he stayed until his failing health forced him to retire in 1991. Williams wrote: “Throughout his time on the court, Marshall has remained a strong advocate of individual rights…. He has remained a conscience on the bench, never wavering in his devotion to ending discrimination.”
Marshall was known as the most tart-tongued member of the court. He was never reticent with his opinions, especially on matters affecting the civil rights agenda. Former justice William Brennan, long Marshall’s liberal ally on the court, told Ebony: “The only time Thurgood may make people uncomfortable, and perhaps it’s when they should be made uncomfortable, is when he’ll take off in a given case that he thinks … is another expression of racism.”
It came as no surprise therefore that Justice Marshall was a vocal critic of both Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Few justices have been known to speak out on political matters, and for years Marshall himself refused to grant interviews. Near the end of his service to the Court, however, Marshall did speak out when he was stung by court reversals on minority set-aside programs and affirmative action. In 1987 Marshall dismissed Reagan as “the bottom” in terms of his commitment to black Americans. He later told Ebony:
“I wouldn’t do the job of dogcatcher for Ronald Reagan.” Marshall later heaped equal vitriol on the Bush administration after the president vetoed an important civil rights bill. The justice told Newsweek that the actions of Bush and Reagan reflect a return to the days “when we [blacks] really didn’t have a chance.”
He retired in 1991 and died of heart failure on January 24, 1993.
Marshalls’ oldest son, Thurgood, Jr. is an attorney in D.C. and a member of the board of governors of the U.S. Postal Service. The younger son, John, was appointed the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety in 2006.
Marshall will be well remembered. Marshall served as a strong leader during the civil rights movement, as an architect of the legal strategy that ended racial segregation, and as the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist referred to the words inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court — “Equal Justice for All” — stating in his eulogy that, “Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”