Thurgood Marshall

(Created by Sharon Heckstall, History 135, June 2001)

Thurgood Marshall, http://www.kron.com/specials/blackhistory/marshall.html

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What impact did Thurgood Marshall's legal victories in Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights issues have on the world?


Thoroughgood (Thurgood) Marshall was born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore MD, the son of William and Norma Africa Marshall. He was named Thoroughgood after his maternal great-grandfather who, as a slave, was brought from the Congo (now known as the Republic of Zaire) to America. Thurgood Marshall shortened his name from Thoroughgood when he was seven years old because he claimed that he got tired of spelling all of that. He first learned about the constitution in his elementary school basement where he was sent for disrupting class. As punishment he was expected to recite a passage from the constitution by memory.

Marshall’s interest in civil rights began at an early age. At age thirteen, he questioned why white citizens had more rights than blacks. While attending Lincoln University, he and his fellow classmates refused to relinquish their seats in the white’s only section of a movie theater in Chester, Pennsylvania. This was the first of many sit-ins for Marshall.

In 1930, Marshall received his Bachelors degree in American Literature and Philosophy from Lincoln University. Having been denied entrance into the University of Maryland's law program because of his race, Marshall went on to earn his law degree in 1933 from Howard University where he graduated first in his class. Declining a fellowship from Harvard, Marshall chose to wage the wars of civil rights as a legal representative for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Before serving on the Supreme Court, Marshall served as legal director of the NAACP. His tenure, from 1940 to 1961, was a pivotal time for the organization, as overturning racial segregation was one of its prime directives. Marshall, along with his mentor Charles Hamilton (who was the first Black lawyer to win a case before the Supreme Court), developed a long-term strategy for eradicating segregation in schools. They first concentrated on graduate and professional schools, believing that White judges would be more likely to sympathize with the ambitious young Blacks in those settings. As the team won more and more cases, they turned toward elementary and high schools.

Marshall's first major civil rights victory came when he went up against Maryland University's Graduate Law School in Murray v. Pearson. This was sweet revenge for Marshall since he had been denied entrance into the Law School. Another major victory came without setting foot in a courtroom when he went to Texas to defend a local African-American junior college president who was summoned for jury duty. Upon reporting to jury duty, the college president was told that it was an error and was dragged and flung down the courthouse steps. Marshall met with the Texas Governor James Allred and several hours after their meeting, a press conference was called and they were informed that prospective African-American jurors would no longer be harassed and would be allowed to serve in Texas courts.

Marshall is best known for his role in Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954. This case began the process of abolishing school segregation in the United States. Marshall used the Fourteenth Amendment as his catalyst to prove that segregated schools based on race was unconstitutional. The Fourteenth Amendment was designed to ensure former slaves and their descendants the equal protection of the laws by providing people of different races with facilities that were substantially equal, even if separate. The heart of the amendment is the equal protection clause, which states, "No State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit states from separating people by race as long as whites and blacks were treated equally. The amendment is better know as the separate but equal doctrine, Marshall won 27 of the 32 cases he tried before the Supreme Court. Marshall's oratorical skills and fiery delivery earned him the nickname of "the Wrathful Marshall."

President John F. Kennedy named Marshall to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1961. As a Circuit Court Judge he made 98 rulings, all of which were upheld by the Supreme Court. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as U.S. Solicitor General where he successfully argued 14 of 16 cases for the government. In June 1967, he was named Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall became the first African American as well as the second Marylander to serve on the Supreme Court. As an Associate Justice, he continued his work of championing the constitutional rights of all races.

Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991, and he died of heart failure on January 24, 1993 at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center. In his eulogy to Marshall, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist referred to the words inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court, "Equal Justice for All." Rehnquist stated, "Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall." He is survived by his wife, Cecilia and two sons.

  • 1908 Birth of Thurgood Marshall
  • 1930 Marshall graduated with honors from Lincoln U. (cum laude)
  • 1933 Received law degree from Howard U. (magna cum laude); began private practice in Baltimore
  • 1934 Began work for Baltimore branch of NAACP
  • 1935 With Charles Houston, won his first major civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson
  • 1936 Became assistant special counsel for NAACP in New York
  • 1940 Won first of 29 Supreme Court victories (Chambers v. Florida)
  • 1944 Successfully argued Smith v. Allwright, overthrowing the South's "white primary"
  • 1948 Won Shelley v. Kraemer, in which the Supreme Court struck down legality of racially restrictive covenants
  • 1950 Won Supreme Court victories in two graduate-school integration cases, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents
  • 1951 Visited South Korea and Japan to investigate charges of racism in U.S. armed forces. He reported that the general practice was one of "rigid segregation".
  • 1954 Wons Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas landmark case that demolished the legal basis for segregation in America
  • 1961 Defended civil rights demonstrators, winning Supreme Circuit Court victory in Garner v. Louisiana; nominated to Second Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy
  • 1961 Appointed circuit judge, making 112 rulings, all later upheld by Supreme Court (1961-1965)
  • 1965 Appointed U.S. solicitor general by President Lyndon Johnson; won 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the government (1965-1967)
  • 1967 Became first African American elevated to U.S. Supreme Court (1967-1991)
  • 1991 Retired from the Supreme Court
  • 1993 Died at 84 on January 24

WWW Sites

Marshall, Thurgood - American Revolutionary Author Juan Williams offers a tribute dedicated to the lawyer. Find interviews, speeches, a photograph gallery, and articles.

Marshall, Thurgood - LookSmart Fast Facts Article offers a biography of this influential African-American lawyer who worked with the NAACP. Find related articles about his court triumphs.

Marshall, Thurgood - Baltimore Maryland city honors its native son with a statue outside the federal building on Pratt Street. Read a testament to the man and the monument.

Thurgood Marshall School of Law Houston, Texas School describes its history, faculty, academic emphasis and Environmental Justice Clinic. Send an email for more information.

Welcome to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund In 1987 the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund was established to help students wishing to attend one of the 40 Historically Black Public Colleges and Universities. Get more information by surfing to www.tmsf.org or calling 917-663-2220.

Marshall, Thurgood - FBI Freedom of Information Act Read the FBI's 1,394 page file on Marshall that details the results of their background investigation and his activities with the NAACP.

Supreme Court of the United States Reference a wealth of materials about the highest court in the country on its official Web site.

Brown v. Board of Education Topeka The Brown Foundation presents a summary of the famous school desegregation case and a collection of research sources.

Oyez! Thurgood Marshall gives a biography as well as links to all the cases for which he wrote opinions.

This obituary provides a great condensed version of some of his supreme court opinions.

Index of articles published by the New York Times

Thurgood Marshall Before the Court

Collection of articles on the legacy of Thurgood Marshall (*.pdf)

Recommended Books
  • Beginning Biographies: African Americans - Thurgood Marshall (Six Pack) by Garnet Nelson Jackson (Paperback - 1994)

  • Champion of Justice: Thurgood Marshall by G.S. Prentzas (Library Binding - October 1999)

  • Civil Rights Litigation and Attorney Fees Annual Handbook by Thurgood Marshall(Editor) (Paperback - June 1990)

  • A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America by Howard Ball

  • Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall by Carl T. Rowan

  • Emancipation by J. Clay, Jr. Smith, Thurgood Marshall (Paperback - March 1999)

  • Justice Thurgood Marshall, Crusader for Liberalism: His Judicial Biography by Randall W., Ph.D. Bland (Hardcover - May 2001)

  • Making Civil Rights Law : Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 by Mark V. Tushnet (Hardcover - February 1994)

  • Mr Civil Rights : The Story of Thurgood Marshall (Notable Americans) by Nancy Whitelaw (Hardcover - July 1995)

  • Thurgood Marshall (Black Americans of Achievement) by Lisa Aldred, Nathan I. Huggins(Editor) (Paperback - December 1990)

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Brown v Board of Education, 1954 

This page is copyright © 2001, C.T. Evans and S. Heckstall.
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu