Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), American jurist, the first black justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. Marshall came to prominence as the civil rights lawyer who won the legal case making segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Throughout his long and varied career, he was a tireless advocate for the rights of minorities and the poor.
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was named for his paternal grandfather, a former slave who changed his name to Thoroughgood when he joined the United States Army during the Civil War (1861-1865). Marshall’s mother, Norma Arica Marshall, was one of the first blacks to graduate from Columbia Teacher’s College in New York City. His father, William Canfield Marshall, worked as a railroad porter and as head steward at an exclusive white club. William Marshall was the first black person to serve on a grand jury in Baltimore in the 20th century.
Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore and graduated from an all-black high school at age 16. He attended Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest historically black college. While in college Marshall participated in a successful sit-in at a local movie theater. Protesters occupied “whites-only” seats to force the theater to cease making black patrons sit in a segregated balcony section. Marshall married Vivien “Buster” Burey in 1930. They remained married until her death in 1955.
After graduating with high honors from Lincoln in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland School of Law, which rejected him because of his race. Instead, he studied at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., and graduated first in his class in 1933.
In 1936 Marshall abandoned a private law practice in Baltimore and moved to New York City, where he became a staff lawyer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From 1939 to 1961, he served as director and chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
At the NAACP, Marshall helped develop and implement a strategy to fight racial segregation throughout the United States. He worked closely with local communities and individuals to build support for this plan. He argued numerous cases in local, state, and federal courts, as well as the United States Supreme Court.
Marshall won almost all of the cases he argued before the Supreme Court. In Chambers v. Florida (1940) he persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn a criminal conviction based on a coerced confession. In Smith v. Allwright (1944) Marshall convinced the Court to strike down a Texas practice, known as the “white primary,” which excluded blacks from participating in primary elections. In Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) the Supreme Court agreed with Marshall that courts could not enforce “restrictive covenants,” private agreements not to sell land to blacks. In Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma (1948) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950) Marshall won unanimous decisions forcing the universities of Oklahoma and Texas to integrate their law schools.
Marshall’s most important victory came in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), a case involving racial segregation in public schools. He argued that the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States requires that states treat all citizens alike, regardless of race. Although precedent was against him, Marshall persuaded the Court to unanimously declare segregation in public schools unconstitutional. This decision laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the Brown case, Marshall won six other Supreme Court cases in the 1950s, leading to the desegregation of public parks, swimming pools, local bus systems, and athletic facilities.
|IV||FEDERAL JUDGE AND SOLICITOR GENERAL|
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which had jurisdiction over federal district courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. In four years as a Court of Appeals judge, Marshall wrote 98 opinions (essays explaining the logic and principles underlying a ruling), none of which were reversed by the Supreme Court. He wrote opinions supporting academic freedom, the right to a fair trial, and the right of civil rights demonstrators to picket and protest.
In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall solicitor general of the United States. In this position he once again argued cases before the Supreme Court, this time on behalf of the United States government.
|V||SUPREME COURT JUSTICE|
In June 1967 President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court. Two months later, Marshall was confirmed as associate justice of the Supreme Court by the United States Senate.
In his early years on the Supreme Court, Marshall was a prominent member of the Court’s liberal majority, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and later by Justice William Brennan. Marshall wrote the majority opinion in Stanley v. Georgia (1969), overturning a Georgia ordinance that made private possession of obscene material a crime. He spoke for the Court in Grayned v. City of Rockford (1972), striking down an antipicketing ordinance that had been used against civil rights demonstrators.
As the Supreme Court became increasingly conservative in the 1970s and 1980s, Marshall was often a dissenting voice. He frequently spoke out against the Court’s endorsement of capital punishment. Marshall believed the death penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also opposed the death penalty because it was disproportionately applied to minorities. See Capital Punishment.
Marshall opposed decisions that he believed supported arbitrary police practices, neglected the poor, or chipped away at civil rights. In Florida v. Bostick (1991) Marshall protested when the Court found nothing unconstitutional about police boarding intercity buses and asking individual passengers to allow their bags to be searched. Marshall argued that few people on a bus would understand that they could legally refuse to agree to such a search on constitutional grounds. Marshall saw this practice as denying fundamental constitutional rights to the uneducated and the poor, who were more likely to ride buses.
In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), Marshall dissented from a decision that refused to require San Antonio to allocate money to schools on an equal basis. Marshall pointed out that students from the city’s poorest neighborhoods received a substandard education, even though their parents paid a far greater percentage of their income in school taxes than did the parents of students from wealthy areas of the city.
Poor health forced Marshall to retire from the Supreme Court in 1991. Marshall died of heart failure in Washington, D.C., on January 24, 1993. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his second wife, Cecilia Marshall, and their two sons. Like many Supreme Court justices, he left all of his personal papers, including his notes from meetings with other justices, to the Library of Congress. Contrary to usual practice, Marshall declared that his papers should be open for immediate use by scholars, journalists, and others.