Chief Justice Earl Warren swears in Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and ’50s, Marshall was the architect and executor of the legal strategy that ended the era of official racial segregation.
The great-grandson of a slave, Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1908. After being rejected from the University of Maryland Law School on account of his race, he was accepted at all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C. At Howard, he studied under the tutelage of civil liberties lawyer Charles H. Houston and in 1933 graduated first in his class. In 1936, he joined the legal division of the NAACP, of which Houston was director, and two years later succeeded his mentor in the organization’s top legal post.
As the NAACP’s chief counsel from 1938 to 1961, he argued more than a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully challenging racial segregation, most notably in public education. He won nearly all of these cases, including a groundbreaking victory in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the equal rights clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and was thus illegal. The decision served as a great impetus for the civil rights movement and ultimately led to the abolishment of segregation in all public facilities and accommodations.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but his nomination was opposed by many Southern senators, and he was not confirmed until the following year. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall to be solicitor general of the United States. In this position, he again successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court, this time on behalf of the U.S. government.
On June 13, 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark. Of his decision to appoint Marshall, Johnson said it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.” After a heated debate, the Senate confirmed Marshall’s nomination by a vote of 69 to 11 on August 30. Marshall was officially sworn in to the nation’s highest court at the opening ceremony of the Supreme Court term on October 2.
During his 24 years on the high court, Associate Justice Marshall consistently challenged discrimination based on race or sex, opposed the death penalty, and vehemently defended affirmative action. He supported the rights of criminal defendants and defended the right to privacy. As appointments by a largely Republican White House changed the ideology of the Supreme Court, Marshall found his liberal views increasingly in the minority. He retired in 1991 because of declining health and died in 1993.