“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute,” powerful words spoken by civil rights attorney and the nation’s first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. A towering figure and brilliant civil rights attorney, he used the power of the courts to fight racism and discrimination, to tear down Jim Crow laws and dismantle segregation. His mission was equal justice for all. He is best known for arguing the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional in public schools. From 1936 he worked for the NAACP, becoming its chief counsel in 1940. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued prior to serving as a Supreme Court Justice. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Thurgood to the Supreme Court. The impact of his litigation work forever changed the landscape of American society.
Born Thoroughgood Marshall on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, to William Canfield Marshall and Norma Arica Marshall. His father, William, was an amateur writer who worked as a dining-car waiter on a railroad, later becoming a chief steward at a ritzy all-white country club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher. At the age of six, while attending grade school, he shortened his name to “Thurgood” because he grew tired of having to write out such a long name.
His father enjoyed following court cases and oftentimes would take Thurgood to court with him to observe the proceedings. Thurgood later said that his father “never told me to become a lawyer, but he turned me into one. He taught me how to argue, challenged my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made, even if we were discussing the weather. “
In 1930, Thurgood graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He applied to the University of Maryland Law School but was denied acceptance because of his race. In 1933, he received his law degree from Howard University Law School, graduating first in his class. It was at Howard University, he met his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged him and his classmates to use the law for social change.
One of Thurgood’s first legal cases was against the University of Maryland Law School in the 1935 case Murray v. Pearson. Working with his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood sued the school for denying admission to Black applicants solely on the basis of race. The legal duo successfully argued that the law school violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of protection of the law, an amendment that addresses citizenship and the rights of citizens.
In 1936, he joined the NAACP as a staff lawyer. In 1940, he was named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was created to mount a legal assault against segregation and discrimination. Thurgood became one of the nation’s leading attorneys. He argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning 29. Some of his notable cases include:
- Smith v. Allwright (1944), which found that states could not exclude Black voters from primaries
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which struck down race-based restrictive housing covenants
- Sweatt v. Painter(1950), which deemed separate facilities for Black professional and graduate students unconstitutional
Thurgood’s most famous case and what is considered his greatest victory as a civil rights attorney, was the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. 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.”
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated Thurgood to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Thurgood U.S. solicitor general. On August 30, 1967, Thurgood was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and joined the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
During his nearly 25 year tenure on the Supreme Court, he fought for affirmative action for minorities, held strong against the death penalty, and supported woman’s right to choose, if an abortion was appropriate for her. He made a significant impact on American society and culture.
On January 24, 1993, Thurgood Marshall died at the age of 84 in Bethesda, Maryland. The esteemed judge is celebrated for helping to put an end to racial segregation and promoting various types of human rights. Thurgood’s steadfast push for equality forever shaped the American justice system.
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 Thurgood.
Thurgood Marshall leaves a supreme legacy of challenging the status quo and creating a better life for the voiceless and the most vulnerable through his fight for justice and equality.
“Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.”
“Each of you, as an individual, must pick your own goals. Listen to others, but do not become a blind follower.”
“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
“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.”
“What is the quality of your intent?”
“A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.”
“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.”
“A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.
“The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”
“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
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