Thurgood Marshall Biography

Thurgood Marshall (1908 – 1993) was a civil rights lawyer and the first African-American appointed to the US Supreme Court Justice. As a lawyer, he championed civil rights and was the lead lawyer in the pivotal Supreme Court Case Brown vs Board of Education, Topeka (1954). Marshall advocated on behalf of the NAACP to challenge the south’s policy of segregation in education. His successful challenge was a major step to ending segregation. As Supreme Court Justice, he was a strong liberal voice, supporting individual rights.

“We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences, which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side. We shall have liberty for all.” – T. Marshall


Thurgood Marshall was born Thoroughgood Marshall 2 July 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. He shortened his birth name to Thurgood after getting tired of writing it out in full. His father William was a railroad porter and his mother, Norma an elementary school teacher. Both were descended from African-American slaves. His parents encouraged him to study and take part in debates. His father would often take him to a local court, where he would sit and listen and later debate the case with his father. Although his father never directly encouraged him to be a lawyer, Thurgood Marshall says that he developed a love for articulating arguments and this planted the idea to become a lawyer.

From an early age, Marshall was aware of the racial discrimination that existed for black people living in Maryland – though his parents did their best to shield him from the worst. As a young student, he was often mischevious and not particularly hard-working. But he graduated with honors from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He was then rejected to study at the University of Maryland Law school because of the states racial segregation. He attended the nearby Howard University Law School where he received his degree, finishing top of his class. At Howard, his emerging views on racial discrimination were strengthened by the dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who was outspoken on the need for African-Americans to fight for their rights in America.

As a lawyer

After graduating, Marshall established a private practice in Baltimore. During the Great Depression years, many clients couldn’t afford to pay, but he would often take cases of discrimination for free. He developed a reputation for presenting cases with strength, clarity, and a down to earth, respectful tone. He used existing laws to try and overturn cases of mistreatment and discrimination in areas such as housing and education. One of his first cases, Murray v. Pearson (1934) involved suing Maryland Law School for rejecting an applicant because of his race. Marshall successfully argued that the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine was not being implemented because the state did not provide a similar institution for black Americans.

Marshall’s success brought him to the attention of the NAACP (National Association for the advancement of Colored People). The NAACP was keen to fight segregation using legal challenges and Marshall seemed an ideal candidate due to his skills as lawyers and moderate tone. He became the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and began taking on major cases, which were taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. Out of 32 cases that he took to the Supreme Court, he won 29 of them. His advocacy of civil rights issues earned him the nickname Mr. Civil Rights”.

“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” T. Marhsall.

In 1940, at the age of 32, Marshall took his first case to the Supreme Court. It involved a murder case in Florida, where the only evidence against four black men, was their confessions received under duress and without access to legal representation. Marshall presented a case that the only evidence was the confessions compelled by police through duress. The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Supreme Court of Florida and freed the men. It was an important case as it challenged the long-held practise of forcing confessions from black people accused of crimes. The trial also excluded black people from the jury.

Brown vs Board of Education

Since the Civil War, southern states had successful disenfranchised black citizens and created a system of segregation, which applied in areas of public education and public transport. In 1896, the US Supreme Court had in the ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld state rights to implement segregation on the grounds of ‘separate but equal.’ A major target of the NAACP was to overturn racial segregation.

“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.”
― Thurgood Marshall

In 1954, a family of black Americans, the Browns in Topeka, Kansas applied for their daughter to attend a local school, but she was refused and made to go to a black-only school many miles away. The Brown family launched a case against the school district. The local court ruled in favour of the school authority, But Marshall took the case to the Supreme Court. He argued that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ could never be implemented because the overwhelming evidence of segregation was that facilities for the black population were under-resourced and inferior. Marshall made powerful use of sociological and historical data to prove his case that segregated schools led to inferior outcomes on not just educational grounds but also self-image and the sense of worth for those who were excluded from their local schools.

The Supreme Court agreed that the notion of ‘separate but equal’ was unconstitutional for public education. The decision paved the way for the desegregation of educational facilities (though it would take many years for it to be implemented, e.g. Ruby Bridges in 1960)

In the 1950s, Marshall developed a close relationship with FBI director J.Edgar Hoover. Hoover was very powerful and many in the FBI were suspicious and unsupportive of the NAACP fearing they were too radical. Marshall tried to portray the NAACP as a moderating force and gain the backing of Hoover. For example, Marshall attacked a black lawyer T.R.M. Howard for being too radical and not representative of the NAACP. It is said Marshall ‘disliked Howard’s militant tone and maverick stance.’ It illustrated how Marshall felt it was better to work with the establishment rather than attack as an outsider.

Thurgood-marshall- Marshall’s high profile court cases made him a national figure and leading symbol of the civil rights movement. It also made him a target of conservatives in the south who felt threatened by the end of segregation. In 1961, John. F. Kennedy, keen to promote civil rights, appointed Marshall to the US Court of Appeals fo the Second Circuit. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall to US Solicitor General – becoming the first black person to hold the position and the highest-ranking black person in the US government. On 13 June 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court. He was confirmed 69-11 in the Senate and became the first black person out of 96 appointments to the Supreme Court.

“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.”

Supreme Court Justice

Marshall served on the court for 24 years from 1965 to 1991. He was a leading liberal figure on the court. During the 60s and 70s, the Warren Court was a period of judicial activism and liberalism with the Supreme Court making important decisions on the constitutional right to abortion and civil rights. Marshall opposed the death penalty, and he was an active supporter of individual rights in criminal procedures and civil rights. By the end of his tenure, conservative appointments had swung the court to the right, and he often became the ‘liberal dissenter.’

“The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment… It is also evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the – underprivileged members of society.”

In 1987, he gave a speech where he criticised many aspects of the original constitution arguing that it contained many flaws reflecting the racism of US society in the eighteenth century.

“I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.” May 6, 1987).

It reflected Marshall’s philosophy of judicial activism. He once said ‘You do what is right and allow the law to catch up.’ To Marshall, the constitution needed interpreting in a way which allowed real equality and liberty. His conservative critics argued that he exceeded his constitutional role in interpreting according to his beliefs rather than the constitution.

Marshall retired from the court in 1991, citing ill health. He died two years later on 24 January 1993 at the age of 84. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He left his papers to the Library of Congress.

He married Vivian Burey in 1929, who died in 1955. They had no children. Marshall remarried Cecilia Suyat in 1993, and they had tow sons – Thurgood Marshall, Jr., and John W. Marshall. His religion was Episcopalian

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Thurgood Marshall”, Oxford, Published 25 July 2019.

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