Thurgood Marshall: A Giant of American Justice

One epitaph written for Thurgood Marshall reads “We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall”.  This heartfelt tribute sums up the everlasting influence this brilliant American hero had on the lives of so many, as well as the tremendous impact his intelligence and determination had on civil rights and justice in America.

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland.  His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher and his father, William, was a steward at an all-white, exclusive club.  His father’s interest in legal cases spurred intelligent and informative debates at home, which in turn inspired Thurgood’s interest in the law.  An above average student through high school, Marshall was also known to fool around a bit in school.  One of his high school accomplishments – memorizing the US Constitution – came as the result of a punishment!  Marshall married Vivian Burrey in 1929 and would remarry after her death, in 1955.  He and his second wife, Cecilia Suyat, would have two children – Thurgood Jr. and John Marshall.

After attending Lincoln University as an undergrad, Marshall was denied acceptance into the University of Maryland Law School because of his race.  Instead, he would attend and graduate from Howard University’s law school in 1933.  In Murray vs Pearson, he would use his Howard degree to successfully sue the University of Maryland in 1936 on behalf of student Donald Murray, who was denied entry to the school for the same race-based reason as Thurgood years earlier.

As a law student at Howard, Thurgood was influenced by the school’s dean, Charles Houston, who encouraged his students to use the law to drive social change.  The motivated young lawyer served as counsel for the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) beginning in 1934, before leaving for New York City to work for the NAACP’s national office.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1976. (photo: Buyenlarge/UIG)

Over the next fifteen years, Thurgood would argue thirty-two cases before the US Supreme Court, winning twenty-nine of them.  His recognition as a brilliant lawyer continued to grow with each important legal victory Marshall claimed.  In 1940 he won the Chambers vs State of Florida case which found that black men had been convicted of murder based on coerced confessions.  In 1944’s Smith vs Allwright, the Court supported Marshall against the Democratic Party using all-white primary elections in some southern states.  More victories would follow – the Court struck down racially restrictive covenants in public housing in the 1948 Shelley vs Kramer case, and in 1950 Marshall won two graduate school integration cases (Sweat vs Painter and McLaurin vs Oklahoma State Regents).

Marshall’s legal successes and growing influence on the American legal system would culminate in his most important and impactful victory in the 1954 landmark Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka case.  The case, which saw the US Supreme Court end “separate but equal” access to education across the nation, was one of the most important legal cases of the twentieth century, and became the driving force for future changes in the civil rights era.

His successes earned him the respect and admiration of America’s political leaders.  President John F. Kennedy, soon after his presidency began, appointed Marshall to the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  His tenure there resulted in 112 rulings, none of which were overturned by the Supreme Court.  In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Thurgood as the first black US Solicitor General.  Two years later, on October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall would be sworn in as the first black Justice of the US Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Marshall’s early years on the liberal Warren Court saw him supporting individual rights; Roe vs Wade;  and anti-death penalty cases.  As the Court became more conservative Marshall became known as the “Great Dissenter” before he would retire from the Court in 1991.

Thurgood Marshall’s influence on the United States of America was profound.  This giant of a man and brilliant legal scholar contributed to the greatness of our nation.

Featured image of Thurgood Marshall in 1957: Buyenlarge/UIG

Text sources include:

Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall by Carl T Rowan (Little Brown & Company 1993)


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