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Marshall, Thurgood

Marshall, Thurgood

July 2, 1908
January 24, 1993

Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer and associate justice of U. S. Supreme Court, distinguished himself as a jurist in a wide array of settings. As the leading attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1938 to 1961, he pioneered the role of professional civil rights advocate. As the principal architect of the legal attack against de jure racial segregation, Marshall oversaw the most successful campaign of social reform litigation in American history. As a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, solicitor general of the United States, and associate justice of the Supreme Court, he amassed a remarkable record as a public servant. Given the influence of his achievements over a long span of time, one can reasonably argue that Thurgood Marshall may have been the outstanding attorney of twentieth-century America.

Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where his father was a steward at an exclusive all-white boat club, and his mother was an elementary school teacher. He attended public schools in Baltimore before proceeding to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he shared classes with, among others, Cabell "Cab" Calloway, the entertainer; Kwame Nkrumah, who became president of Ghana; and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became president of Nigeria. After graduating, he was excluded from the University of Maryland School of Law because of racial segregation. Marshall attended the Howard University School of Law, where he fell under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston elevated academic standards at Howard, turning it into a veritable hothouse of legal education and training many of those who would later play important roles in the campaign against racial discrimination. Marshall graduated in 1933, first in his class.

After engaging in a general law practice briefly, Marshall was persuaded by Houston to pursue a career working as an attorney on behalf of the NAACP. Initially he worked as Houston's deputy, but in 1939 he took over from his mentor as the NAACP's special counsel. In that position Marshall confronted an extraordinary array of legal problems that took him from local courthouses, where he served as a trial attorney, to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he developed his skills as an appellate advocate. Over a span of two decades, he argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, winning twenty-nine of them. He convinced the Court to invalidate practices that excluded blacks from primary elections (Smith v. Allwright, 1944), to prohibit segregation in interstate transportation (Morgan v. Virginia, 1946), to nullify convictions obtained from juries from which African Americans had been barred on the basis of their race (Patton v. Mississippi, 1947), and to prohibit state courts from enforcing racially restrictive real estate covenants (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948).

Marshall's greatest triumphs arose, however, in the context of struggles against racial discrimination in public education. In 1950, in Sweatt v. Painter, he successfully argued that a state could not fulfill its federal constitutional obligation by hurriedly constructing a "Negro" law school that was inferior in tangible and intangible ways to the state's "white" law school. That same year he successfully argued in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that a state university violated the federal constitution by admitting an African-American student and then confining that student, on the basis of his race, to a specified seat in classrooms and a specified table in the school cafeteria. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall culminated his campaign by convincing the Court to rule that racial segregation is invidious racial discrimination and thus invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution.

In 1961, over the objections of white supremacist southern politicians, President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to two positions that had never previously been occupied by an African American. In 1965 President Johnson appointed Marshall as solicitor general, and in 1967 he nominated him to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Throughout his twenty-four years on the Court, Marshall was the most insistently liberal of the justices, a stance that often drove him into dissent. His judgments gave broad scope to individual liberties (except in cases involving asserted claims to rights of property). Typically he supported claims of freedom of expression over competing concerns and scrutinized skeptically the claims of law enforcement officers in cases implicating federal constitutional provisions that limit the police powers of government. In the context of civil liberties, the most controversial positions that Marshall took involved rights over reproductive capacities and the death penalty. He viewed as unconstitutional laws that prohibit women from exercising considerable discretion over the choice to continue a pregnancy or to terminate it through abortion. Marshall also viewed as unconstitutional all laws permitting the imposition of capital punishment.

The other side of Marshall's jurisprudential liberalism was manifested by an approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation that generally advanced egalitarian policies. His judgments displayed an unstinting solicitude for the rights of labor, the interests of women, the struggles of oppressed minorities, and the condition of the poor. One particularly memorable expression of Marshall's empathy for the indigent is his dissent in United States v. Kras (1973), a case in which the Court held that a federal statute did not violate the Constitution by requiring a $50 fee of persons seeking the protection of bankruptcy. Objecting to the Court's assumption that, with a little self-discipline, the petitioner could readily accumulate the required fee, Marshall wrote that

It may be easy for some people to think that weekly savings of less than $2 are no burden. But no one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are. It is perfectly proper for judges to disagree about what the Constitution requires. But it is disgraceful for an interpretation of the Constitution to be premised upon unfounded assumptions about how people live.

Marshall retired from the Court in 1991, precipitating the most contentious confirmation battle in the nation's history when President George Bush nominated as Marshall's successor Clarence Thomas, an ultraconservative African-American jurist.

After his death, Marshall's extraordinary contributions to American life were memorialized in an outpouring of popular grief and adulation greater than that expressed for any previous justice. Marshall has been the object of some controversy since his death. Immediately after his death, a public debate opened over Marshall's instructions regarding his confidential Supreme Court papers. Ultimately, the Library of Congress opened them to public access without restriction. In 1996 newly uncovered documents demonstrated that Marshall had passed secret information to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during his years at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. These developments have not detracted from Marshall's heroic position in American history, in tribute to which he was honored by the erection of a statue in his native Baltimore in 1995.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Fourteenth Amendment; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Sweatt v. Painter


Bland, Randall W. Private Pressure on Public Law: The Legal Career of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Rowan, Carl. Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Random House, 2001.

randall kennedy (1996)
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