Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a U.S. Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate. Marshall earned an important place in American history on the basis of two accomplishments. First, as legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he guided the litigation that destroyed the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow segregation. Second, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court–the nation’s first black justice–he crafted a distinctive jurisprudence marked by uncompromising liberalism, unusual attentiveness to practical considerations beyond the formalities of law, and an indefatigable willingness to dissent.
Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, attended that city’s racially segregated public schools, and graduated from Lincoln University. He received his law degree from Howard University where he came under the influence of Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of the law school and a pioneer in the use of litigation as a mode of social reform.
Between 1934 and 1961, as an attorney for the NAACP, Marshall traveled throughout the United States, representing all manner of clients whenever a dispute involved questions of racial justice–from trials for common crimes to appellate advocacy raising the most intricate matters of constitutional law. His exploits earned him the appellation “Mr. Civil Rights.” He argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, prevailing in twenty-nine of them. These cases include Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated the so-called white primary (the practice of barring blacks from the Democratic party primary in a state where that party controlled state government), Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which prohibited state courts from enforcing racially restrictive real estate covenants, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which invalidated state-enforced racial segregation in the public schools.
The next stage in Marshall’s career consisted of a series of high-level appointments. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him solicitor general, another racial “first.” And in 1967, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court, declaring that it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.”
Justice Marshall was an outspoken liberalon a Court dominated by conservatives. In his twenty-four year tenure, he voted to uphold gender and racial affirmative action policies in every case in which they were challenged. He dissented in every case in which the Supreme Court failed to overturn a death sentence and opposed all efforts to narrow or burden the right of women to obtain abortions. No justice has been more libertarian in terms of opposing government regulation of speech or private sexual conduct. Nor has any justice been more egalitarian in terms of advancing a view of the Constitution that imposes positive duties on government to provide certain important benefits to people–education, legal services, access to courts–regardless of their ability to pay for them.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.