Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice

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When Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1991, Paul Gerwitz, a law professor at Yale University wrote a tribute published in The New York Times. In the article, Gerwitz argued that Marshall's work “required heroic imagination.” Marshall, who had lived through Jim Crow Era segregation and racism, graduated from law school ready to fight discrimination. For this, Gerwitz added, Marshall “really changed the world, something few lawyers can say.”

Key Achievements

  • First African-American to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Wins 29 U.S. Supreme Court cases, helping to overturn segregation in public schools and transportation these cases include Brown v. Board of Education as well as Browder v. Gayle.
  • Established the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, serving as first president and counsel-director.
  • Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom from William H. Clinton.

Early Life and Education

Born Thoroughgood on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Marshall was the son of William, a train porter and Norma, an educator. In the second grade, Marshall changed his name to Thurgood.

Marshall attended Lincoln University where he began protesting against segregation by participating in a sit-in at a movie theater. He also became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In 1929, Marshall graduated with a degree in humanities and began his studies at the Howard University School of Law. Heavily influenced by the school's dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, Marshall became dedicated to ending discrimination through the use of legal discourse. In 1933, Marshall graduated first in his class from Howard University School of Law.

Career Timeline

1934: Opens a private law practice in Baltimore. Marshall also begins his relationship for the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP by representing the organization in the law school discrimination case Murray v. Pearson.

1935: Wins his first civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson while working with Charles Houston.

1936: Appointed assistant special counsel for the New York chapter of the NAACP.

1940: Wins Chambers v. Florida. This will be Marshall's first of 29 U.S. Supreme Court victories.

1943: Schools in Hillburn, NY are integrated after Marshall's win.

1944: Makes a successful argument in the Smith v. Allwright case, overturning the “white primary” existing in the South.

1946: Wins an NAACP Spingarn Medal.

1948: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down racially restrictive covenants when Marshall wins Shelley v. Kraemer.

1950: Two U.S. Supreme Court wins with Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents.

1951: Investigates racism in the U.S. Armed Forces during a visit to South Korea. As a result of the visit, Marshall argues that “rigid segregation” exists.

1954: Marshall wins Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The landmark case ends legal segregation in public schools.

1956: The Montgomery Bus Boycott ends when Marshall wins Browder v. Gayle. The victory ends segregation on public transportation.

1957: Establishes the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. The defense fund is a nonprofit law firm that is independent of the NAACP.

1961: Wins Garner v. Louisiana after defending a group of civil rights demonstrators.

1961: Appointed as a judge on the Second Circuit Courts of Appeal by John F. Kennedy. During Marshall's four-year tenure, he makes 112 rulings which are not reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

1965: Handpicked by Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as U.S. Solicitor General. In a two-year period, Marshall wins 14 out of 19 cases.

1967: Appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is the first African-American to hold this position and serves for 24 years.

1991: Retires from the U.S. Supreme Court.

1992: Recipient of the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Office by the Jefferson Awards. Awarded the Liberty Medal for protecting civil rights.

Personal Life

In 1929, Marshall married Vivien Burey. Their union lasted for 26 years until Vivien's death in 1955. That same year, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat. The couple had two sons, Thurgood Jr. who served as a top aide for William H. Clinton and John W. who worked as a Director of the U.S. Marshals Service and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety.


Marshall died on January 25, 1993.

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