Thurgood Marshall — perhaps best known as the first African-American Supreme Court justice — played an instrumental role in promoting racial equality during the civil rights movement. As a practicing attorney, Marshall argued a record-breaking 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. In fact, Marshall represented and won more cases before the high court than any other person. During his 24-year term as Supreme Court justice, Marshall’s passionate support for individual and civil rights guided his policies and decisions. Most historians regard him as an influential figure in shaping social policies and upholding laws to protect minorities.
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter, and his mother, Norma, was a teacher.
After he completed high school in 1925, Marshall attended Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Just before he graduated, he married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey.
In 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland School of Law but was rejected because he was black. He then decided to attend Howard University Law School, where he became a protégé of the well-known dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged students to use the law as a means for social transformation.
In 1933, Marshall received his law degree and was ranked first in his class. After graduation from Howard, Marshall opened a private practice law firm in Baltimore.
Life as a Lawyer
In 1935, Marshall’s first major court victory came in Murray v. Pearson, when he, alongside his mentor Houston, successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying a black applicant admission to its law school because of his race.
Shortly after this legal success, Marshall became a staff lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was eventually named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Marshall was recognized as one of the top attorneys in the United States, winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
Some of Marshall’s notable cases include:
- Chambers v. Florida (1940): Marshall successfully defended four convicted black men who were coerced by police into confessing to murder.
- Smith v. Allwright (1944): In this decision, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas state law that authorized the use of whites-only primary elections in certain Southern states.
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948): The Supreme Court struck down the legality of racially restrictive housing covenants.
- Sweatt v. Painter (1950): This case challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation that was put in place in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case and set the stage for future legislation. The court sided with Heman Marion Sweatt, a black man who was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law due to his race even though he had the option of “separate but equal” facilities.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954): This landmark case was considered Marshall’s greatest victory as a civil-rights lawyer. A group of black parents whose children were required to attend segregated schools filed a class-action lawsuit. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Personally, Marshall suffered a great loss when Vivian, his wife of 25 years, died of cancer in 1955. Shortly after her death, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat, and the couple went on to have two sons together.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first black Solicitor General. It was clear the successful attorney was well on his way to making a case for a Supreme Court nomination.
Supreme Court Appointment
In 1967, following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson appointed Marshall, the first black justice, to the U.S. Supreme Court, proclaiming it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and the right man and the right place.”
At this time, the court consisted of a liberal majority, and Marshall’s views were generally welcomed and accepted. His ideology aligned closely with Justice William J. Brennan, and the two often cast similar votes.