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Happy Birthday, Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice

Last updated: February 27, 2023

July 02, 2010

by findingDulcinea Staff

Before Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, he was also the most successful person to argue cases before the Supreme Court. Marshall’s commitment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and his determination to ensure equal opportunities for African-Americans helped him play a significant role in ending segregation in public institutions.

Thurgood Marshall’s Early Days

Thurgood Marshall was born Thoroughgood Marshall on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. Named after a paternal grandfather, Marshall said he “got tired of spelling all that and shortened it” by the time he was in second grade.

Marshall’s father had a profound influence on his childhood, teaching him to love the U.S. Constitution. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, along with poet Langston Hughes. Marshall had planned to go to law school at the University of Maryland, but was not admitted because he was black. He turned to Howard University Law School where dean (and subsequent mentor) Charles Hamilton Houston shared his passion for the Constitution.

Alongside Houston, Marshall scored an early victory just a year after graduating magna cum laude from Howard: he sued the University of Maryland for denying admission to another African-American applicant.

Marshall’s Notable Accomplishments

Sources in this Story

Marshall rose to prominence with a 1954 case, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; as NAACP chief counsel, he took on the case of the plaintiffs, successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In 1956, Marshall met with success again when he argued the case of Browder v. Gayle, and the Supreme Court struck down bus segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama. The decision ended the Montgomery bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks’ arrest.

Eleven years later, Marshall became the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court.

Marshall’s Enduring Legacy

On Jan. 24, 1993, Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure in Bethesda, Md., at the age of 84. His work with the NAACP and his use of the courts to end official segregation put him alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as a revered civil rights leader. He also helped to draft the constitutions of Ghana and Tanzania.

Marshall accomplished a great deal as a Supreme Court justice, and at his death, his papers went to the Library of Congress, as was customary. Marshall had stipulated, however, that the Library should make his papers available to the public, a previously unheard of allowance.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote an incensed letter to the Library of Congress, criticizing its decision to follow through on Marshall’s orders. According to The New York Times, most justices maintain that the “aura of secrecy is an important factor in maintaining the Court’s authority in the eyes of the country.”

Many of Marshall’s speeches and interviews are available on the Web site of biographer Juan Williams, author of “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.” In a speech commemorating the Constitution’s bicentennial, Marshall was unafraid to point out flaws in the original document, saying that it “was a product of its times, and embodied a compromise which, under other circumstances, would not have been made.”

Marshall continues to inspire the educational and legal communities. The Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland supports an online database of all publications of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in an effort to document the Commission’s history. You can peruse the list or download documents in PDF format.

The Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., is a charter school that prepares students to go to college and, ultimately, to careers in law. From a first class of 80 in 2001, there are now 360 students in grades 9-12. Despite some trouble in its early years, 100 percent of Academy seniors are accepted to college.

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