Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

February 17, 2021 | Black History Month, Flow BLOG

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall, 1957
Photo Credit: Yousuf Karsh

Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer, Supreme Court justice, and fighter for civil rights.

He was born Thoroughgood Marshall on June 2, 1908 in Baltimore, MD. 

He was named after a paternal grandfather who chose the name “Thorough Good” for himself when he enlisted in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War.

At the age of six, Marshall legally changed his name to Thurgood to escape the constant teasing. 

Marshall’s mother and father were the descendants of enslaved people. 

His father, William Canfield Marshall, worked as a railroad porter and later as the staff of a whites-only country club. His mother, Norma Arica Williams, was a teacher. 

Marshall’s father would take him and his brother to the courthouse to watch court cases. They would debate the case and discuss current events at the dinner table. 

Marshall said his father turned him into a lawyer. “He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”

Marshall admitted to being a prankster in high school. For punishment, he was sent to the basement and forced to memorize one paragraph of the U.S. Constitution for every prank. He said, “In two years, I knew the whole thing by heart.”

Marshall’s reading of the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, taught him that many Black Americans were not benefitting from their constitutional rights. 

Marshall attended law school at Howard University School of Law and graduated first in his class in 1933. His mother had to pawn her wedding and engagement rings to pay his tuition.

The vice-dean of the law school, Charles Hamilton Houston, became Marshall’s mentor. 

Upon graduating from law school, Marshall opened a law office in Baltimore. 

In 1935, he started working for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with Houston, who directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Marshall and Houston brought a lawsuit challenging the University of Maryland Law school’s policy of segregation and won. 

In 1936, Marshall joined the national staff of the NAACP and became their chief legal counsel in 1940. He remained with the NAACP for a total of 25 years. 

Marshall and Houston wanted to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that called for “separate but equal” train cars for Blacks and whites. The “separate but equal” doctrine extended into all areas of Black lives, from schools to water fountains and bathrooms. 

Marshall believed that education was the only way for Black Americans to succeed. He witnessed the inadequacy of the U.S. education system when he saw a young Black child bite into an orange. The child received such a poor education that he neither knew what an orange was nor how to properly eat it.  

On behalf of the NAACP, Marshall and Houston argued in a number of cases that educational institutions for Black Americans were not equal to the same institutions for whites. The courts decided in favour of the NAACP. These cases laid the stepping stone for the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). 

In 1952 and 1953, Marshall argued that case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled that a student’s self-esteem was harmed by segregation, and the “separate but equal” doctrine was overturned. 

After Brown, Marshall argued more cases in support of civil rights. He argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 29 of them. 

Marshall moved to the judicial bench in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Upon the approval of his nomination, Marshall became the second Black judge to sit on the 2nd Circuit.

He became the first Black Solicitor General when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to that position in 1965. 

He only stayed in that position for two years, as President Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. About his appointment, Marshall said, “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”

As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Marshall opposed the death penalty and free speech. He always sided with minorities, supported affirmative actions programs, and abortion rights. 

Justice Marshall retired on June 27, 1991. At a news conference, he was asked if he considered Blacks, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to be, “free at last.”

Marshall said, “Well, I’m not free. All I know is that years ago, when I was a youngster, a Pullman porter told me that he had been in every city in this country . . . and he had never been in any city in the United States where he had to put his hand up in front of his face to find out he was a Negro. I agree with him.”

Justice Marshall died on Jan. 24, 1993 of heart failure in Washington, D.C. He was 84. 

He was to administer the oath of office to Vice President Al Gore on Jan. 20, 1993 but could not because of his condition.

Justice Marshall’s flag-draped coffin lay in state at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court before his funeral. He was only the second Supreme Court justice to have this honour. 


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