Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

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    Thurgood Marshall - Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
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    Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the U.S. Supreme Court's first African American justice.

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    Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993) was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the U.S. Supreme Court's first African American justice. Prior to his judicial service, he successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.

    Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall graduated from the Howard University School of Law in 1933. He established a private legal practice in Baltimore before founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he served as executive director. In that position, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education, the latter of which held that racial segregation in public education is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

    In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as the United States Solicitor General. In 1967, Johnson successfully nominated Marshall to succeed retiring Associate Justice Tom C. Clark as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Marshall retired during the administration of President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and was succeeded by Clarence Thomas.

    Early life and education

    Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908. He was descended from enslaved persons on both sides of his family. He was named Thoroughgood after a great-grandfather, but later shortened it to Thurgood. His father, William Canfield Marshall, worked as a railroad porter, and his mother, Norma Arica Williams, worked as a teacher. Marshall's parents instilled in him an appreciation for the United States Constitution and the rule of law.Marshall first learned how to debate from his father, who took Marshall and his brother to watch court cases; they would later debate what they had seen. The family also debated current events after dinner. Marshall said that although his father never told him to become a lawyer, he "turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made."Marshall attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and was placed in the class with the best students. He graduated a year early in 1925 with a B-grade average, and placed in the top third of the class. He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. It is commonly reported that he intended to study medicine and become a dentist. But according to his application to Lincoln University, Marshall said his goal was to become a lawyer. Among his classmates were poet Langston Hughes and musician Cab Calloway. Initially he did not take his studies seriously, and was suspended twice for hazing and pranks against fellow students. He was not politically active at first, becoming a "star" of the debating team.In his first year, Marshall opposed the integration of African-American professors at the university. Hughes later described Marshall as "rough and ready, loud and wrong". In his second year, Marshall participated in a sit-in protest against segregation at a local movie theater. That year, he was initiated as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first fraternity founded by and for blacks.In September 1929, Marshall married Vivien Buster Burey and began to take his studies seriously, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American literature and philosophy in 1930.Marshall wanted to study in his hometown law school, the University of Maryland School of Law, but did not apply because of the school's policy of segregation. Marshall attended Howard University School of Law, where he worked harder than he had at Lincoln. His mother had to pawn her wedding and engagement rings to pay the tuition. His views on discrimination were strongly influenced by the dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. Marshall graduated from Howard Law in 1933 ranked first in his class with an LL.B. magna cum laude.

    Legal career

    After graduating from law school, Marshall started a private law practice in Baltimore. He began his 25-year affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1934 by representing the organization in the law school discrimination suit Murray v. Pearson. In 1936, Marshall became part of the national staff of the NAACP.In Murray v. Pearson, Marshall represented Donald Gaines Murray, a black Amherst College graduate with excellent credentials, who was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of segregation. Black students in Maryland wanting to study law had to attend segregated establishments, Morgan College, the Princess Anne Academy, or out-of-state black institutions. Using the strategy developed by Nathan Margold, Marshall argued that Maryland's segregation policy violated the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson because the state did not provide a comparable educational opportunity at a state-run black institution. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against the state of Maryland and its Attorney General, who represented the University of Maryland, stating, "Compliance with the Constitution cannot be deferred at the will of the state. Whatever system is adopted for legal education must furnish equality of treatment now."

    Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

    At the age of 32, Marshall argued and won Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940), before the U.S. Supreme Court. That same year, he founded and became the executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As the head of the Legal Defense Fund, he argued many other civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, most of them successfully, including Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944); Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948); Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950); and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950). His most historic case as a lawyer was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education, as established by Plessy v. Ferguson, was not applicable to public education because it could never be truly equal. In total, Marshall won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

    During the 1950s, Thurgood Marshall developed a friendly relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For example, when, during a national speaking tour, T. R. M. Howard, a maverick civil rights leader from Mississippi, criticized the FBI's failure to seriously investigate cases such as the 1955 killers of George W. Lee and Emmett Till, Marshall "attacked Howard as a 'rugged individualist' who did not speak for the NAACP" in a private letter to Hoover. Two years earlier, Howard had arranged for Marshall to deliver a well-received speech at a rally of his Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, only days before the Brown decision. According to historians David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Marshall's disdain for Howard was almost visceral. [He] 'disliked Howard's militant tone and maverick stance' and 'was well aware that Hoover's attack served to take the heat off the NAACP and provided opportunities for closer collaboration [between the NAACP and the FBI] in civil rights.'"

    Court of Appeals and Solicitor General

    President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961 to a new seat created on May 19, 1961, by 75 Stat. 80. A group of Senators from the South, led by Mississippi's James Eastland, held up his confirmation, so he served for the first several months under a recess appointment. Marshall remained on that court until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to be the United States Solicitor General, the first African American to hold the office. At the time, this made him the highest-ranking black government official in American history, surpassing Robert C. Weaver, Johnson's first secretary of housing and urban development. As Solicitor General, he won 14 out of the 19 cases that he argued for the government and called it "the best job I've ever had."

    U.S. Supreme Court

    On June 13, 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to succeed Tom C. Clark, saying that this was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." The Marshal confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee took place in July 1967, and, August 3, the committee voted 11–5 send the nomination to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. Among the dissenters was Democrat Sam Ervin, who said, "It is clearly a disservice to the Constitution and the country to appoint a judicial activist to the Supreme Court at any time." Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on August 30, 1967, by a vote of 69–11 (37 Democrats and 32 Republicans voted in favor; 10 Democrats and one Republican voted against), becoming the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court justice. Additionally, 20 senators voted present or abstained (17 Democrats and three Republicans). Marshall took the judicial oath of office on October 2, 1967.Marshall once bluntly described his legal philosophy as this: "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up", a statement which his conservative detractors argued was a sign of his embracement of judicial activism.Marshall served on the Court for the next 24 years, compiling a liberal record that included strong support for Constitutional protection of individual rights, especially the rights of criminal suspects. His most frequent ally on the Court (the pair rarely voted at odds) was Justice William Brennan, who consistently joined him in supporting abortion rights and opposing the death penalty. Brennan and Marshall concluded in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was, in all circumstances, unconstitutional, and never accepted the legitimacy of Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled four years later that the death penalty was constitutional in some circumstances. Thereafter, Brennan or Marshall dissented from every denial of certiorari in a capital case and from every decision upholding a sentence of death.In 1987, Marshall gave a controversial speech on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of the Constitution of the United States. Marshall stated:

    ... the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and major social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.

    In conclusion, Marshall stated:

    Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.

    Although best remembered for jurisprudence in the fields of civil rights and criminal procedure, Marshall made significant contributions to other areas of the law as well. In Teamsters v. Terry, he held that the Seventh Amendment entitled the plaintiff to a jury trial in a suit against a labor union for breach of duty of fair representation. In TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., he articulated a formulation for the standard of materiality in United States securities law that is still applied and used today. In Cottage Savings Association v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, he weighed in on the income tax consequences of the savings and loan crisis, permitting a savings and loan association to deduct a loss from an exchange of mortgage participation interests. In Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney, Marshall wrote a dissent saying that a law that gave hiring preference to veterans over non-veterans was unconstitutional because of its inequitable impact on women.Among his many law clerks were attorneys who went on to become judges themselves, such as Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Judge Ralph Winter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan; notable law professors Susan Low Bloch, Elizabeth Garrett (former President of Cornell University), Paul Gewirtz, Dan Kahan, Randall L. Kennedy, Eben Moglen, Rick Pildes, Louis Michael Seidman, Cass Sunstein, and Mark Tushnet (editor of Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions and Reminiscences); and law school deans Paul Mahoney of University of Virginia School of Law, Martha Minow of Harvard Law School, and Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law.Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 due to declining health. In his retirement press conference on June 28, 1991, he expressed his view that race should not be a factor in choosing his successor, and he denied circulating claims that he was retiring because of frustration or anger over the conservative direction in which the Supreme Court was heading. Marshall stated in his retirement press conference that he, his wife, and doctor unanimously agreed that he should retire following the conclusion of the 1990–1991 term. He was reportedly unhappy that the choice of his successor would fall to Republican President George H. W. Bush. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Marshall.

    Death and legacy

    Marshall died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84. After he lay in repose in the Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court Building, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his second wife and their two sons.Marshall left all his personal papers and notes to the Library of Congress. The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, opened Marshall's papers for immediate use by scholars, journalists, and the public, insisting that this was Marshall's intent. The Marshall family and several incumbent justices disputed this claim. The decision to make the documents public was supported by the American Library Association. A list of the archived manuscripts is available.Thurgood Marshall's Bible was used by Vice President Kamala Harris at her inauguration in Washington on January 20, 2021 when she was sworn into office.


    Numerous memorials have been dedicated to Marshall. An 8-foot (2.4 m) statue stands in Lawyers Mall adjacent to the Maryland State House. The statue, dedicated on October 22, 1996, depicts Marshall as a young lawyer and is placed just a few feet away from where stood the Old Maryland Supreme Court Building, the court where Marshall argued discrimination cases leading up to the Brown decision. The primary office building for the federal court system, located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., is named in honor of Marshall and contains a statue of him in the atrium.In 1976, Texas Southern University renamed its law school after the sitting justice.In 1980, the University of Maryland School of Law opened a new library, which it named the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. In 2019, the Maryland General Assembly renamed the Maryland State Law Library as the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library.In 2000, the historic Twelfth Street YMCA Building located in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was renamed the Thurgood Marshall Center.The major airport serving Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., was renamed the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 1, 2005.The 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church added Marshall to the church's liturgical calendar of "Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints", designating May 17 as his feast day.His membership of the Lincoln University fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha was to have been memorialized by a sculpture by Alvin Pettit in 2013.The University of California, San Diego renamed its Third College after Marshall in 1993.Marshall Middle School, in Olympia, Washington, is named after Marshall, as is Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C.

    In popular culture

    Marshall is portrayed by Sidney Poitier in the 1991 two-part television miniseries, Separate but Equal, depicting the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. In 2006, Thurgood, a one-man play written by George Stevens Jr., premiered at the Westport Country Playhouse, starring James Earl Jones and directed by Leonard Foglia. Later it opened Broadway at the Booth Theatre on April 30, 2008, starring Laurence Fishburne.On February 24, 2011, HBO screened a filmed version of the play which Fishburne performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The production was described by the Baltimore Sun as "one of the most frank, informed and searing discussions of race you will ever see on TV." On February 16, 2011, a screening of the film was hosted by the White House as part of its celebrations of Black History Month. A painting of Marshall by Chaz Guest has hung at the White House. Marshall is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman in Reginald Hudlin's 2017 film Marshall, which revolves around the 1941 case of the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell.

    Marriage and family

    Marshall was married twice. He married Vivian "Buster" Burey in 1929. After her death in February 1955, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat in December of that year. They were married until he died in 1993, having two sons together: Thurgood Marshall Jr., a former top aide to President Bill Clinton; and John W. Marshall, a former United States Marshals Service Director and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety.

    Thurgood Marshall Award

    In 1993, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico instituted the annual Thurgood Marshall Award, given to the top student in civil rights at each of Puerto Rico's four law schools. It includes a $500 monetary award. The awardees are selected by the Commonwealth's Attorney General.


    Marshall, Thurgood (2001). Tushnet, Mark V. (ed.). Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions and Reminiscences. Kennedy, Randall (foreword). Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated – Lawrence Hill Books. ISBN 978-1-55652-386-1.

    See also

    List of African-American jurists

    List of justices of the Supreme Court of the United States

    List of law clerks of the Supreme Court of the United States (Seat 10)

    List of United States Supreme Court justices by time in office

    United States Supreme Court cases during the Warren Court

    United States Supreme Court cases during the Burger Court

    United States Supreme Court cases during the Rehnquist Court


    Further reading

    External links

    Appearances on C-SPAN:

    Interview with Hunter Clark and Michael Davis on Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench Booknotes, January 3, 1993.

    Interview with Juan Williams on Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, Booknotes, October 11, 1998.

    Fox, John, "Biographies of the Robes: Thurgood Marshall", Expanding Civil Rights, Public Broadcasting Service.

    Oyez, "Thurgood Marshall", official Supreme Court media.

    Oral History Interview with Thurgood Marshall, from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

    FBI file on Thurgood Marshall

    Long, Michael G., "The Vetting of Thurgood Marshall — and a Lesson for Today", Chicago Tribune, July 15, 2018, via Portside.

    Image of Thurgood Marshall, Hyman Rickover and Newton Minow at convocation "Prospects for Democracy" at Beverly Hilton, California, 1963. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

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    Thurgood Marshall - Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
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