Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. Marshall attended Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (later renamed Frederick Douglass High School), where he was an above-average student and put his finely honed skills of argument to use as a star member of the debate team. The teenaged Marshall was also something of a mischievous troublemaker. His greatest high school accomplishment, memorizing the entire United States Constitution, was actually a teacher’s punishment for misbehaving in class. After graduating from high school in 1926, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. There, he joined a remarkably distinguished student body that included Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana; Langston Hughes, the great poet; and Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer. After graduating from Lincoln with honors in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite being overqualified academically, Marshall was rejected because of his race. This firsthand experience with discrimination in education made a lasting impression on Marshall and helped determine the future course of his career. Instead of Maryland, Marshall attended law school in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, another historically black school. The dean of Howard Law School at the time was the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. Marshall quickly fell under the tutelage of Houston, a notorious disciplinarian, and extraordinarily demanding professor. Marshall graduated magna cum laude from Howard in 1933. After graduating from law school, Marshall briefly attempted to establish his own practice in Baltimore, but without experience, he failed to land any significant cases. In 1934, he began working for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In one of Marshall’s first cases—which he argued alongside his mentor, Charles Houston—he defended another well-qualified undergraduate, Donald Murray, who like himself had been denied entrance to the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall and Houston won Murray v. Pearson in January 1936, the first in a long string of cases designed to undermine the legal basis for de jure racial segregation in the United States. Later in 1936, Marshall moved to New York City to work full time as legal counsel for the NAACP. Over the following decades, Marshall argued and won a variety of cases to strike down many forms of legalized racism, helping to inspire the American Civil Rights Movement. Marshall’s first victory before the Supreme Court came in Chambers v. Florida (1940), in which he successfully defended four black men who had been convicted of murder on the basis of confessions coerced from them by police. Another crucial Supreme Court victory came in the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, in which the Court struck down the Democratic Party’s use of whites-only primary elections in various Southern states. However, the great achievement of Marshall’s career as a civil-rights lawyer was his victory in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas on behalf of their children forced to attend all-black segregated schools. Through Brown v. Board, one of the most important cases of the 20th century, Marshall challenged head-on the legal underpinning of racial segregation, the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and therefore racial segregation of public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While enforcement of the Court’s ruling proved to be uneven and painfully slow, Brown v. Board provided the legal foundation, and much of the inspiration, for the American Civil Rights Movement that unfolded over the next decade. At the same time, the case established Marshall as one of the most successful and prominent lawyers in America. In 1961, then-newly elected President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. Then, in 1965, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed Marshall to serve as the first black U.S. solicitor general, the attorney designated to argue on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court. During his two years as solicitor general, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court. Finally, in 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to serve on the bench before which he had successfully argued so many times before—the United States Supreme Court. On October 2, 1967, Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African-American to serve on the nation’s highest court. Thurgood Marshall is the history we needed in the law. He represented the black community with the utmost class and broke very important barriers.
Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams is a biography of Thurgood’s amazing journey and is a wonderful read for anyone wanting to continue research on this historical trailblazer.
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