Black History Month (February)
Thurgood Marshall was an influential civil rights lawyer who became the symbol for America’s struggle for equal justice throughout the Twentieth Century. As chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education , which led to integration in public schools.
Born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall was the son of a railcar porter and a teacher. With his older brother in medical college and his father too ill to work, Marshall’s family barely managed to send him to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His mother was so determined that her second son become a lawyer, however, that she pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for his law school tuition.
Denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of his race, Marshall attended Howard Law School in Washington, D.C. where his mentor was the dean, Charles Houston. Houston’s demanding academic standards and the long daily commute from Baltimore transformed the wisecracking prankster of undergraduate days into a hardworking law student.
Upon graduation from Howard in 1933, Marshall opened a law practice in his hometown of Baltimore, one of only a handful of African-American practitioners. With the Depression deepening, clients were scarce and the young lawyer struggled to keep his practice afloat. His easy manner and meticulous work earned him the respect of white judges and opposing attorneys.
During this time, Marshall began working on civil rights cases with Houston, who was special counsel for the NAACP. In 1935, Marshall represented Donald Murray who was to become the first African-American admitted to the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall’s historic victory made him a rising star in the eyes of the NAACP leadership and also brought personal satisfaction to the man who was denied admission five years earlier.
In 1936, Marshall moved to New York to become a fulltime NAACP staff attorney. Over the next 25 years, he would argue 32 cases for the NAACP before the U.S. Supreme Court and win 29 of them. While Brown v. Board of Education was his most well known case, Marshall also won significant victories in securing voter rights for African-Americans and appealing cases where forced confessions led to the death penalty. Known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” his work focused on protecting individual rights in an integrated society.
In 1961, Marshall was appointed by President John Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and from 1965-67, he served as the U.S. solicitor general under President Johnson. As solicitor general, he sometimes found himself representing the government in a position that was different from the one he might have personally chosen. In one such case, Marshall argued that having federal agents take time to spell out constitutional rights to every defendant would prevent them from quickly getting to the bottom of a case. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and ruled in Miranda v. Arizona that under the Fifth Amendment every defendant had the right to avoid self-incrimination.
In 1967, Marshall was appointed by President Johnson to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Before retiring in 1991, he served nearly a quarter of a century, showing particular concern in cases involving civil rights, economic justice, and capital punishment.
After his death in 1993, over 18,000 people walked past his flag-draped casket as it lay in state in the Supreme Court’s Great Hall. The next morning, at his funeral in the National Cathedral, Chief Justice Rehnquist noted that the words above the entrance to the Supreme Court read “Equal Justice Under Law,” and remarked:
“Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”
Dialogue on Brown v. Board of Education