Thurgood Marshall—perhaps best known as the first African American Supreme Court justice—played an instrumental role in promoting racial equality during the civil rights movement. As a practicing attorney, Marshall argued a record-breaking 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. In fact, Marshall represented and won more cases before the high court than any other person. During his 24-year term as Supreme Court justice, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions. Most historians regard him as an influential figure in shaping social policies and upholding laws to protect minorities.
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter, and his mother, Norma, was a teacher.
After he completed high school in 1925, Marshall attended Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Just before he graduated, he married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey.
Marshall decided to attend Howard University Law School, where he became a protégé of the well-known dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged students to use the law as a means for social transformation.
In 1933, Marshall received his law degree and was ranked first in his class. After graduation from Howard, Marshall opened a private practice law firm in Baltimore.
Life as a Lawyer
In 1935, Marshall’s first major court victory came in Murray v. Pearson, when he, alongside his mentor Houston, successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying a Black applicant admission to its law school because of his race.
Shortly after this legal success, Marshall became a staff lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was eventually named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Marshall was recognized as a one of the top attorneys in the United States, winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
Some of Marshall’s notable cases included:
- Chambers v. Florida (1940): Marshall successfully defended four convicted Black men who were coerced by police into confessing to murder.
- Smith v. Allwright (1944): In this decision, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas state law that authorized the use of whites-only primary elections in certain Southern states.
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): The Supreme Court struck down the legality of racially restrictive housing covenants.
- Sweatt v. Painter (1950): This case challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation that was put in place in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case and set the stage for future legislation. The court sided with Heman Marion Sweatt, a Black man who was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law due to his race even though he had the option of “separate but equal” facilities.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954): This landmark case was considered Marshall’s greatest victory as a civil-rights lawyer. A group of Black parents whose children were required to attend segregated schools filed a class-action lawsuit. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Personally, Marshall suffered a great loss when Vivian, his wife of 25 years, died of cancer in 1955. Shortly after her death, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat, and the couple went on to have two sons together.
Supreme Court Appointment
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first Black Solicitor General. It was clear the successful attorney was well on his way to making a case for a Supreme Court nomination.
In 1967, following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson appointed Marshall, the first Black justice, to the U.S. Supreme Court, proclaiming it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and the right man and the right place.”
At this time, the court consisted of a liberal majority, and Marshall’s views were generally welcomed and accepted. His ideology aligned closely with Justice William J. Brennan, and the two often casted similar votes.
Throughout his historic tenure as justice, Marshall developed a reputation as a passionate member of the court who supported expanding civil rights, enacting affirmative action laws and limiting criminal punishment.
In the case of Furman v. Georgia (1972), Marshall and Brennan argued that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances.
The justice was also part of the majority vote that ruled in favor of abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) case. Toward the end of Marshall’s term, the court had shifted to conservative control, and his influence waned.
In 1991, Marshall retired from the Supreme Court because of his declining health. President George H. W. Bush appointed his replacement, Justice Clarence Thomas.
Thurgood Marshall Quotes
Some of Marshall’s best-known quotes include:
- “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
- “To protest against injustice is the foundation of all our American democracy."
- “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
- “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.”
- “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.”
- “The measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”
- “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
Death and Legacy
In 1993, Marshall died of heart failure at the age of 84.
As a tribute to the judge, the law school of Texas Southern University, which was renamed and recognized as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1978, continues to educate and train minority law students. Each year, the school ranks in the nation’s top five for the number of Black law graduates.
Additionally, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which was established in 1987, supports nearly 300,000 students who attend schools at historically Black colleges, universities, medical schools and law schools.
In 2017, “Marshall,” a biographical drama that recounted the early cases of the first Black Supreme Court justice’s career, was released. The film brought renewed public interest to the life and work of Marshall.
Today, the esteemed judge is celebrated for helping to put an end to racial segregation and promoting various types of human rights. Ultimately, Marshall’s steadfast push for equality forever shaped the American justice system.
Thurgood Marshall. Oyez at Cornell.
Thurgood Marshall. Thurgoodmarshall.com.
Thurgood Marshall’s unique Supreme Court legacy. National Constitution Center.