On This Day

thurgood marshall, thurgood marshall supreme court
Associated Press
Justice Thurgood Marshall stands outside
the Supreme Court Building in
Washington, D.C., Sept. 1, 1967.

On This Day: Thurgood Marshall Confirmed as First African-American Supreme Court Justice

August 30, 2010 09:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 30, 1967, the Senate confirmed the nomination of civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.

“The Right Man and the Right Place”

Thurgood Marshall was a distinguished civil rights lawyer who had been serving as solicitor general for two years when Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark resigned in June 1967.

President Lyndon Johnson, a friend of Marshall and a strong supporter of civil rights, was looking to choose a black man, but worried that Marshall would face a difficult confirmation hearing. He considered other candidates with lower profiles, but former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach urged against it.

“Mr. President, if you appoint anybody, any black to that court but Thurgood Marshall, you are insulting every black in the country,” he said. “Thurgood is the black lawyer as far as blacks are concerned—I mean there can’t be any doubt about that.”

Marshall was not optimistic about receiving the nomination when he was called into Johnson’s office on June 13. When Johnson told him that he was being nominated, a shocked Marshall could only reply, “Oh, yipe!”
“I believe it is the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place,” Johnson announced in a Rose Garden press conference. Many news publications praised Johnson’s decision to nominate Marshall, but most recognized it as politically motivated.

“If Thurgood Marshall’s qualifications for the Supreme Court were unimpeachable, his selection was also politically astute—an act of official beatification that brought cheers from virtually every segment of the civil rights spectrum and should earn the Administration points among disenchanted Negro voters in next year’s elections,” wrote Time magazine.

Marshall faced opposition from segregationists in the Senate, who searched for dirt in his past while his confirmation hearing was delayed for two months. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover if Marshall had any connections to communism.

Johnson urged many Southern Democrats to allow the nomination to be confirmed and was able to convince many to abstain from voting. During the confirmation hearing, race was barely mentioned and only Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., strenuously objected.

In an amusing part of the hearing, Strom Thurmond asked Marshall if he knew the members of the committee that drafted the 14th Amendment. When Marshall said he did not, Thurmond referred to him as a “stupid guy.” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., then asked Thurmond who the members were. Marshall recalled, “You know what Thurmond said? ‘I’ll let you know.’ He didn’t know himself. He didn’t know himself.”

On Aug. 30, Marshall was confirmed by a vote of 69 to 11, with 20 senators, mostly Southern Democrats, abstaining. Two days later, in a private ceremony with Justice Hugo Black, Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, officially becoming the 96th man and first African-American to hold the position.

Biography: Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was a hero of the American civil rights movement who successfully argued against school segregation in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

As a lawyer for the NAACP, he won many smaller civil rights cases, including 29 of his 32 cases before the Supreme Court. He continued his fight for civil rights as a Supreme Court justice, campaigning for affirmative action programs. He retired in 1991 and passed away two years later at the age of 84.

“Martin Luther King Jr., with his preachings of love and non-violent resistance, and Malcolm X, the fiery street preacher who advocated a bloody overthrow of the system, are both more closely associate in the popular mind and myth with the civil rights struggle,” writes Juan Williams, author of “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.” “But it was Thurgood Marshall, working through the courts to eradicate the legacy of slavery and destroying the racist segregation system of Jim Crow, who had an even more profound and lasting effect on race relations than either of King or X.”

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