Black News and News Makers in History: Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, serving from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the Court's 96th justice and its first African American justice.

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland.  He was the great grandson of a slave brought over from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the grandson of a slave.  His name was originally Thoroughgood, but after having to spell it, he shortened it to Thurgood in the second grade.  His father, William, a railroad porter, passed his love for the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law onto Thurgood.

Marshall graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore in 1925, then graduated cum laude from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930. At Lincoln University, Marshall was initiated as a member of the first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

It was Marshall’s desire to apply to his hometown law school, the University of Maryland School of Law, but was informed by the dean that he would not be accepted due to the school's segregation policy. Marshall graduated first in his class (magna cum laude) from the Howard University School of Law in 1933.  Later, as a civil rights litigator, Marshall successfully brought suit against the school for its policy and won the case, ending segregation there, in ‘Murray v. Pearson’.

In 1935, in his Baltimore private practice, Thurgood Marshall argued the case for Murray, showing that neither of the in-state institutions offered a law school and that such schools were entirely unequal in quality to the University of Maryland. Marshall and Houston expected to lose and intended to appeal to the federal courts. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against the state of Maryland and its Attorney General, who represented the University of Maryland, stating, "Compliance with the Constitution cannot be deferred at the will of the state. Whatever system is adopted for legal education must furnish equality of treatment now." While it was a moral victory, the state court's ruling had no authority outside of Maryland.

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Thurgood Marshall this week in Black history.Marshall set up a private practice in Baltimore in 1936. That year, he began working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Baltimore.

He won his first major civil rights case, ‘Murray v. Pearson,’ 169 Md. 478 (1936). This was the first challenge of the "separate but equal" doctrine that was part of the ‘Plessy v. Ferguson’ decision. His co-counsel on the case, Charles Hamilton Houston, developed the strategy. Marshall represented Donald Gaines Murray, a black Amherst College graduate with excellent credentials, who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of its segregation policy. Black students in Maryland wanting to study law had to accept one of three options, attend: Morgan College, the Princess Anne Academy, or out-of-state black institutions.

At the age of 32, Marshall won his first U.S. Supreme Court case, ‘Chambers v. Florida,’ 309 U.S. 227 (1940). That same year, he was appointed Chief Counsel for the NAACP. He argued many other civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, most of them successfully, including ‘Smith v. Allwright,’ 321 U.S. 649 (1944); ‘Shelley v. Kraemer,’ 334 U.S. 1 (1948); ‘Sweatt v. Painter,’ 339 U.S. 629 (1950); and ‘McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents,’ 339 U.S. 637 (1950). His most famous case as a lawyer was ‘Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,’ 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education, as established by ‘Plessy v. Ferguson,’ was not applicable to public education because it could never be truly equal. In total, Marshall won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

During the 1950s, Thurgood Marshall developed a friendly relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1956, for example, he privately praised Hoover's campaign to discredit T.R.M. Howard, a maverick civil rights leader from Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI's failure to seriously investigate cases such as the 1955 killers of George W. Lee and Emmett Till. In a private letter to Hoover, Marshall "attacked Howard as a 'rugged individualist' who did not speak for the NAACP."  Two years earlier, Howard had arranged for Marshall to deliver a well-received speech at a rally of his Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi only days before the Brown decision. According to historians David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “Marshall’s disdain for Howard was almost visceral. [He] 'disliked Howard’s militant tone and maverick stance' and 'was well aware that Hoover’s attack served to take the heat off the NAACP and provided opportunities for closer collaboration [between the NAACP and the FBI] in civil rights.'"

President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. A group of Democratic Party Senators, led by Mississippi's James Eastland, held up his confirmation, so he served for the first several months under a recess appointment. Marshall remained on that court until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him Solicitor General, the first African American to hold the office.

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Thurgood Marshall this week in Black history.On June 13, 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court saying that this was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." Marshall was confirmed as an Associate Justice by a Senate vote of 69–11 on August 30, 1967. He was the 96th person to hold the position, and the first African American. President Johnson confidently predicted to one biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, that a lot of black baby boys would be named "Thurgood" in honor of this choice.

Marshall served on the Court for the next twenty-four years, compiling a liberal record that included strong support for Constitutional protection of individual rights, especially the rights of criminal suspects against the government. His most frequent ally on the Court (the pair rarely voted at odds) was Justice William Brennan, who consistently joined him in supporting abortion rights and opposing the death penalty. Brennan and Marshall concluded in ‘Furman v. Georgia’ that the death penalty was, in all circumstances, unconstitutional, and never accepted the legitimacy of ‘Gregg v. Georgia,’ which ruled four years later that the death penalty was constitutional in some circumstances. Thereafter, Brennan or Marshall dissented from every denial of certiorari in a capital case and from every decision upholding a sentence of death. In 1987, Marshall gave a controversial speech on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of the Constitution of the United States. Marshall stated,

"the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today."

In conclusion Marshall stated,

"Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights."

Although best remembered for jurisprudence in the fields of civil rights and criminal procedure, Marshall made significant contributions to other areas of the law as well. In ‘Teamsters v. Terry’ he held that the Seventh Amendment entitled the plaintiff to a jury trial in a suit against a labor union for breach of duty of fair representation. In ‘TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc.’ he articulated a formulation for the standard of materiality in United States securities law that is still applied and used today. In ‘Cottage Savings Association v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue,’ he weighed in on the income tax consequences of the Savings and Loan crisis, permitting a savings and loan association to deduct a loss from an exchange of mortgage participation interests. In Personnel Administrator MA v. Feeney, Marshall wrote a dissent saying that a law that gave hiring preference to veterans over non-veterans was unconstitutional because of its inequitable impact on women.

Among his many law clerks were attorneys who went on to become judges themselves, such as Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; Judge Ralph Winter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan; as well as notable law professors Dan Kahan, Cass Sunstein, Eben Moglen, Susan Low Bloch, Martha Minow, Rick Pildes, Paul Gewirtz, and Mark Tushnet (and editor of ‘Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions and Reminiscences,’ cited hereafter); and law school deans Paul Mahoney of University of Virginia School of Law, and Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law.

Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991, and was reportedly unhappy that it would fall to President George H. W. Bush to name his replacement.  Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Marshall.

Marshall was married twice. He married Vivian "Buster" Burey in 1929.  After her death in February 1955, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat in December of that year. They were married until his own death in 1993 and had two sons together. Thurgood Marshall, Jr. is a former top aide to President Bill Clinton and John W. Marshall is a former United States Marshals Service Director. From 2002 to 2010, he served as Virginia Secretary of Public Safety under governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Marshall died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on January 24, 1993 at the age of 84. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His second wife and their two sons survived him.

Marshall left all of his personal papers and notes to the Library of Congress. The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, opened Marshall's papers for immediate use by scholars, journalists and the public, insisting that this was Marshall's intent. The Marshall family and several of his close associates disputed this claim. The decision to make the documents public was supported by the American Library Association. A list of the archived manuscripts is available.

There are numerous memorials to Justice Marshall. One, an eight foot statute, stands in Lawyers Mall adjacent to the Maryland State House. The statue, dedicated on October 22, 1996, depicts Marshall as a young lawyer and it is placed just a few feet away from where the Old Maryland Supreme Court Building stood - the court where Marshall had argued discrimination cases leading up to the Brown decision.

The primary office building for the federal court system, located on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., is named in honor of Justice Marshall and contains a statue of him in the atrium.

In 1976, Texas Southern University renamed their law school after the sitting justice.

In 1980, the University of Maryland School of Law opened a new library which they named the Thurgood Marshall Law Library.

In 1992, he received the Liberty Medal recognizing his long history of protecting individual rights under the Constitution.

In 1993, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously from President Bill Clinton. 

The University of California, San Diego renamed its Third College after Thurgood Marshall in 1993.

The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico instituted in 1993 the annual Thurgood Marshall Award, given to the top student in civil rights at each of Puerto Rico's four law schools. The awardees are selected by the Commonwealth's Attorney General and includes a $500 monetary award.

In 2000, the historic Twelfth Street YMCA Building located in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was renamed the Thurgood Marshall Center.

The major airport serving Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, was renamed the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 1, 2005.

The 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church added Marshall to the church's liturgical calendar of "Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints," designating May 17 as his feast day.

Thurgood Marshall spent his tenure on the highest court in the land establishing a record for supporting the voiceless American. He began his early career fighting to dismantle racial segregation and as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, he left a legacy that expands that early sensitivity to include all of America's voiceless.

Timeline Overview of Thurgood Marshall’s Career

  • 1936 – Becomes assistant special counsel for NAACP in New York.
  • 1940 – Wins ‘Chambers v. Florida,’ the first of twenty-nine Supreme Court victories.
  • 1943 – Won case for integration of schools in Hillburn, New York.
  • 1944 – Successfully argues ‘Smith v. Allwright,’ overthrowing the South's "white primary".
  • 1948 – Wins ‘Shelley v. Kraemer,’ in which Supreme Court strikes down legality of racially restrictive covenants.
  • 1950 – Wins Supreme Court victories in two graduate-school integration cases, ‘Sweatt v. Painter’ and ‘McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents.’
  • 1951 – Visits South Korea and Japan to investigate charges of racism in U.S. armed forces. He reported that the general practice was one of "rigid segregation."
  • 1954 – Wins ‘Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,’ landmark case that demolishes legal basis for segregation in America.
  • 1956 – Wins ‘Browder v. Gayle’, ending the practice of segregation on buses and ending the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • 1957 – Founds and becomes the first president-director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a nonprofit law firm separate and independent of the NAACP
  • 1961 – Defends civil rights demonstrators, winning Supreme Court victory in ‘Garner v. Louisiana;’ nominated to Second Circuit Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy.
  • 1961 – Appointed circuit judge, makes 112 rulings, none of them reversed on certiorari by Supreme Court (1961–1965).
  • 1965 – Appointed United States Solicitor General by President Lyndon B. Johnson; wins 14 of the 19 cases he argues for the government (1965–1967).
  • 1967 – Becomes first African American named to U.S. Supreme Court (1967–1991).
  • 1991 – Retires from the Supreme Court.

Compiled from Wikipedia.