Spingarn Medal from NAACP, 1946
Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished
Americans Horatio Alger Award
Numerous Honorary Doctorate Degrees
BLACK HISTORY: BIOGRAPHIES
CBN.com United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
built a distinguished career fighting for the cause of civil rights and
equal opportunity. Ebony dubbed Marshall "the most important
Black man of this century — a man who rose higher than any Black person
before him and who has had more effect on Black lives than any other person,
Black or White." The first African-American to serve on the Supreme
Court, Marshall stood alone as the Supreme Court's liberal conscience toward
the end of his career, the last impassioned spokesman for a left-wing view
on such causes as affirmative action, abolishment of the death penalty,
and due process. His retirement in 1991 left the Court in the hands of more
Duke University professor John Hope Franklin told Ebony: "If
you study the history of Marshall's career, the history of his rulings on
the Supreme Court, even his dissents, you will understand that when he speaks,
he is not speaking just for Black Americans but for Americans of all times.
He reminds us constantly of the great promise this country has made of equality,
and he reminds us that it has not been fulfilled. Through his life he has
been a great watchdog, insisting that this nation live up to the Constitution."
Raised in Prosperous Home
Marshall's work on behalf of civil rights spanned five-and-a-half decades
and included the history-making Brown vs. Board of Education ruling
that led to integration of the nation's public schools in 1954. As an attorney
for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),
Marshall fought to have blacks admitted to then-segregated state universities,
challenged the armed services to offer equal treatment for black recruits,
and even assured that blacks would have the right to serve on a jury. John
Hope Franklin put it this way: "For Black people he holds special significance
because it was Thurgood hellip; and a few others who told us we could get
justice through interpretation of the law.... Marshall was at the head of
these lawyers who told us to hold fast because they were going to get the
law on our side. And they did."
Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, into modest
but prosperous circumstances. His mother worked as a teacher in a segregated
public elementary school, and his father was a steward at the staunchly
all-white Gibson Island yacht club. Marshall's first name derives from a
great-grandfather, Thoroughgood Marshall, who was brought to America from
the Congo as a slave. Both of Thurgood Marshall's grandfathers owned grocery
stores. The judge told Ebony that he rarely felt uncomfortable about his
race while growing up in Baltimore. He lived in a nice home on Druid Hill
Avenue and played with children of both races. He described himself as a
"mediocre" student and a "cutup," whose punishment was
often to read the United States Constitution out loud. By the time he graduated
from high school, he knew it by heart.
In September of 1925, Marshall became a student at Lincoln University,
near Philadelphia. He originally intended to study medicine and dentistry,
but he changed to the humanities and began to consider a career in law.
Williams notes that in college Marshall still was something of a cutup —
"he was thrown out of the college twice for fraternity pranks."
During his junior year, however, he married a student from the University
of Pennsylvania, Vivian Burey.
Joined NAACP Staff
The relationship settled him down, and he graduated cum laude from Lincoln
in 1930. From there he moved to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where
he enrolled in the small, all-black law school. The course supervisor was
Charles H. Houston, a demanding but inspiring instructor who instilled in
his students a burning desire to change segregated society. Marshall graduated
first in his class, earning his LLB in 1933. He was admitted to the Maryland
Bar the same year.
Returning to Baltimore, Marshall began working as a private practice lawyer.
Williams noted, however, that the young lawyer "still made time for
the fight against segregation. Representing the local NAACP, he negotiated
with White store owners who sold to Blacks but would not hire them."
Marshall also took the case of a would-be law student who wanted to attend
the all-white University of Maryland law school. The case against the university
was Marshall's first big one. His former professor came to town to help
him argue it, and the judge gave them a favorable ruling. Soon thereafter,
Marshall was invited to join the NAACP's national office in New York City
as an assistant special counsel. Two years later, in 1938, he became the
head special counsel for the powerful organization.
"For the next 20 years," Williams wrote, "[Marshall] traveled
the country using the Constitution to force state and federal courts to
protect the rights of Black Americans. The work was dangerous, and Marshall
frequently wondered if he might not end up dead or in the same jail holding
those he was trying to defend." Marshall prepared cases against the
University of Missouri and the University of Texas on behalf of black students.
He petitioned the governor of Texas when a black was excluded from jury
duty. During and after World War II, he was an outspoken opponent of the
government detention of Japanese Americans, and in 1951 he investigated
unfair court-martial practices aimed at blacks in the military in Korea
and Japan. William H. Hastie, of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals,
told the New York Times: "Certainly no lawyer, and practically
no member of the bench has Thurgood Marshall's grasp of the doctrine of
law as it affects civil rights."
Helped End School Segregation
The limelight found Marshall in 1954, when he led the legal team that
challenged public school segregation in the courts. The case advanced to
the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling that ended a half-century
of segregated schooling. Remembering those days when he worked on Brown
vs. Board of Education, Marshall told Ebony that the Court's
decision "probably did more than anything else to awaken the Negro
from his apathy to demanding his right to equality." At the time, however,
Marshall was an opponent of civil disobedience for blacks in the South,
feeling that organized opposition might lead to white violence — as
indeed it did.
Marshall's first wife died after a long illness in 1955. A year later,
he married Cecilia Suyat, a secretary at the NAACP's New York office. The
Brown vs. Board of Education ruling had made Marshall a national figure
— he was known for some time as "Mr. Civil Rights" —
and when Democrats took control of the White House, the ambitious attorney
let it be known that he wanted a judgeship.
Eventually, after much opposition from Southern senators and even from
Robert Kennedy, Marshall was named to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in 1961. As the civil rights movement gained ground in the 1960s, so did
Marshall. In 1965 he was given the post of United States solicitor general,
a position in which he represented the government before the Supreme Court.
His most important case during these years was the one leading to the adoption
of the Miranda rule, which requires policemen to inform suspects of their
Named to Supreme Court
Against stiff opposition even in his own (Democratic) party, President
Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall's
nomination was opposed most violently by four Southern senators on the Judiciary
Committee, but nevertheless he was confirmed by a vote of 69 to 11. He was
sworn in and took his seat on October 2, 1967, and he stayed until his failing
health forced him to retire in 1991. Williams wrote: "Throughout his
time on the court, Marshall has remained a strong advocate of individual
rights.... He has remained a conscience on the bench, never wavering in
his devotion to ending discrimination."
Marshall was known as the most tart-tongued member of the court. He was
never reticent with his opinions, especially on matters affecting the civil
rights agenda. Former justice William Brennan, long Marshall's liberal ally
on the court, told Ebony: "The only time Thurgood may make people uncomfortable,
and perhaps it's when they should be made uncomfortable, is when he'll take
off in a given case that he thinks ... is another expression of racism."
It came as no surprise therefore that judge Marshall was a vocal critic
of both Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Few justices
have been known to speak out on political matters, and for years Marshall
himself refused to grant interviews. Near the end of his service to the
Court, however, Marshall did speak out when he was stung by court reversals
on minority set-aside programs and affirmative action. In 1987 Marshall
dismissed Reagan as "the bottom" in terms of his commitment to
black Americans. He later told Ebony: "I wouldn't do the job of dogcatcher
for Ronald Reagan." Marshall later heaped equal vitriol on the Bush
administration after the president vetoed an important civil rights bill.
The justice told Newsweek that the actions of Bush and Reagan reflect a
return to the days "when we [blacks] really didn't have a chance."
Liberal Voice in Changing Court
During the more than a decade that Republicans controlled the White House,
one by one, retiring judges were replaced with more conservative successors.
For many years Marshall and Brennan teamed as the high court's true liberals,
and Marshall was gravely disappointed when his colleague was forced to retire.
Marshall remained the lone outspoken liberal on the nine-member court, suffering
through heart attacks, pneumonia, blood clots, and glaucoma. Marshall steadfastly
refused to consider stepping down before absolutely necessary because, as
he told Ebony, "I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve
it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband." One of Marshall's
law clerks told People magazine that Marshall felt compelled to remain on
the court, perhaps at the expense of his health, because he saw himself
as the champion of the underdog. "He's the conscience of the Court,"
the clerk said. Despite his predictions, Marshall's failing health finally
impeded his ability to perform his duties. He retired in 1991 and died of
heart failure on January 24, 1993.
Marshall lived with his wife near Washington, D.C., until his death in
1993. Marshalls' oldest son, Thurgood, Jr. is an attorney on Senator Edward
Kennedy's Judiciary Committee staff. The younger son, John, is a Virginia
Marshall will be well remembered. Marshall served as a strong leader during
the civil rights movement, as an architect of the legal strategy that ended
racial segregation, and as the first African-American Justice of the Supreme
Court. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist referred to the words inscribed
above the front entrance to the Supreme Court — "Equal Justice
for All" — stating in his eulogy that, "Surely no one individual
did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall."
- Ball, Howard, Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in
America, Crown, 1998.
- Gibson, Karen Bush, Thurgood Marshall, Bridgestone, 2002.
- Williams, Juan, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary,
- Ebony, May 1990.
- Newsweek, September 21, 1987; August 6, 1990.
- New York Times, November 23, 1946; April 6, 1951; January 25,
- People, July 7, 1986.
Reprinted by permission of The
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