Before becoming the first African-American justice in the United States’ Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall already made a name for himself as a powerful civil rights pioneer. During his days as a lawyer, he argued 32 cases for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and 1950s. He won 29 of those cases, including the breakthrough decisions about the country’s segregation in the school systems and voting rights.
Even though his name is synonymous with the civil rights movement of the 50s, Marshall was also at the forefront of the battles regarding police brutality, women’s rights, and the death penalty. Over five decades have passed since his history-making appointment to the nation’s highest court, and Marshall is still remembered for just as much for his trailblazing as for his big personality.
Here are some important things to know about this civil rights hero and legal pioneer that changed America.
In the ‘30s, African Americans in Texas weren’t allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary. A 1923 statute made the ban clear, and when the Supreme Court passed the law in 1927, sneaky local officials started turning away black voters on their own accord. Their excuse: the Court didn’t specifically forbid it.
After decades of voter defeat, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had enough. He rolled up his sleeves and took out his briefcase. “There is only one way to handle that bunch,” he wrote to a newspaper editor (who was black) in 1940. “And that is to take them into Court. This we must do.” It was Marshall’s style – fearless and untiring.
If Martin Luther King Jr. is known as the moral and spiritual leader of America’s civil-rights movement, then Marshall should be known as its general. The man wanted results. Rather than simply make speeches, he made the law. He was the NAACP’s top attorney between 1938 and 1961; he won 29 out of the 32 separate civil-rights cases he brought before the Supreme Court.
Smith v. Allwright, in 1944, invalidated Texas’s white primary. Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, outlawed racially restrictive real-estate contracts. Sweatt v. Painter, in 1950, integrated the University of Texas’s law school. And probably the most famous of his cases was Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the separate-but-equal policy.
We’ll get to those cases soon. But first, a little bit about his humble beginnings…
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908. He came from a history of enslaved people on both sides of his family. His given name was Thoroughgood, but he decided to shorten it to Thurgood. He once admitted, “By the time I reached the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that out.”
His father, William, was a railroad porter, and his mother, Norma Arica, was a teacher. He can thank his parents for learning to appreciate the United States Constitution and the rule of law. It was with his father that young Thurgood first learned how to debate. He would take Thurgood and his brother to watch court cases, after which they would debate about what they had seen.
The Marshalls would also debate current events after dinner. Marshall later said that while his father never flat out 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.” In the end, the student became the master.
Marshall went to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, and graduated a year early, in 1925, with a B-grade average. He then went to Lincoln, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. It is commonly reported that Marshall intended to study medicine and become a dentist. But his application to the university states that his goal was indeed to become a lawyer.
The student who was to become a revolutionary judge didn’t take his studies seriously at first. He was even suspended twice for hazing and pulling pranks against other students. He wasn’t politically active at first, but he was the “star” of the debating team. In his first year at college, Marshall actually opposed the integration of African-American professors in the university.
His fellow classmate, the legendary poet, and activist Langston Hughes described Marshall as “rough and ready, loud and wrong.” In his second year, Marshall was involved in a sit-in protest against segregation at a movie theater. It was that year that he became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first fraternity founded by, and intended for, black students.
In September 1929, 21-year-old Marshall married Vivien “Buster” Burey (who was also a civil rights activist), and he began to take his studies more seriously. He graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in American literature and philosophy. Marshall wanted to study law in his hometown but didn’t apply because of the segregation policy.
Instead, he went to Howard University School of Law, where he worked much harder than he did at Lincoln. Even if he didn’t want to, the pressure was on – his mother had to pawn her own wedding and engagement rings to pay his tuition. In 1933, he graduated first in his law class. Yes, his mother (and father, of course) was proud.
Marshall worked a night job at a health clinic in Baltimore during some of the biggest legal trials of his early career. Before he became a famous lawyer and judge, the man had to make ends meet just like anyone else. He struggled to pay his bills when he was a young lawyer. In 1934, he took on a second job at a clinic that treated STDs.
Marshall worked at that clinic while he prepared for the historical case of integrating the University of Maryland in Murray vs. Pearson. When he moved to New York in 1936, he didn’t even quit his night job; he just requested a 6-month leave of absence. But Marshall never returned to his night job. By 1940, he became the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. No need to work night shifts anymore.
During his time at Lincoln University, Marshall’s family had to struggle to pay the tuition (his mother had to sell her own jewelry). His mother, Norma, was working as a teacher and pleaded each term with the university to accept late payments. That is, whenever she was able to scrape together enough money to pay the costs.
After he graduated from law school in 1933, Marshall tackled equal pay for African-American teachers. Then, six years later, Marshall landed a big victory for teachers like his mom, when a federal court in Maryland abolished pay discrimination against African-American teachers. After that, Marshall fought for teachers to pay equality in 10 southern states.
Growing up in Baltimore, Marshall saw segregation firsthand. Soon after graduating from law school, he started a private law practice and represented criminal defendants, soldiers, and workers in jury trials. In 1934, he began his 25-year affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His first task: represent the organization in the discrimination suit, “Murray v. Pearson.”
Marshall represented Donald Gaines Murray, a black college graduate (from Amherst) with excellent credentials, but was denied entry to the University of Maryland Law School because of their segregation policy. Back then, black students in Maryland who wanted to study law had to go to segregated schools or out-of-state black institutions. Marshall successfully argued that the segregation policy violated the “separate but equal” principle because the state didn’t provide a comparable opportunity at a state-run black institution.
In 1946, when Marshall was working for the NAACP, he traveled to Columbia, Tennessee, to defend a group of black men. But Marshall and his colleagues were fearful of their safety after the trial ended, and tried to leave town quickly. According to Haygood, the lawyers were ambushed by locals on the way to Nashville.
Marshall was saved by getting “arrested” on false charges, placed in a sheriff’s car, and then driven quickly off the road. Marshall’s colleagues, who were told to continue driving to Nashville, followed the cop car, which eventually returned to the main road. Marshall later said that he would likely have been lynched if not for their help.
As the head of the Legal Defense Fund, Marshall successfully argued many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright. The famous case from 1944 was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court regarding voting rights and racial desegregation. It overturned the Texas law that authorized parties could set their own internal rules, including white primaries.
The Court ended up ruling it unconstitutional for the state to assign its authority over elections to parties, allowing discrimination to be practiced. This was significant because the ruling then affected all other states that used the white primary rule. Marshall later stated that it was his most important case.
Marshall hounded the FBI to prevent, or at least respond, to racial violence. When he heard that a racist case was just collecting dust on the shelf, he would fire off a note to its handler. He would answer bigoted newspaper stories with his letters to the editor. In short, the man did things that almost got himself killed.
Marshall spent the last 24 years of his career on the Supreme Court, but although he earned the job, it didn’t necessarily suit him. The Court’s confined halls only muffled his belly-laughs and back-slapping personality. But regardless, the man-made the right moves. During the 50s, Marshall developed a rapport with J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, providing a closer collaboration between the NAACP and the FBI in regards to civil rights.
Marshall was involved in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1948 that hit racially restrictive housing contracts. The case happened after an African-American family bought a house in St. Louis that was subject to a restrictive contract preventing “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from residing in the property. The home purchase was also challenged in Court by a neighbor and was blocked by the Supreme Court of Missouri before ever getting to the U.S. Supreme Court by appeal.
Marshall helped in taking down such contracts, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits such contracts. In 2017, a documentary was made called “The Story of Shelley v. Kraemer.” Not to mention the books written about the subject.
John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals in 1961. By 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to be the United States Solicitor General, making him the first African American to hold the office. It also meant that, at the time, he was the highest-ranking black government official in the history of the country.
In 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court after creating a vacancy. He appointed Justice Ramsey as U.S. attorney general, which caused a conflict of interest that, in turn, prompted the justice to retire. As it turns out, the president and his solicitor general were quite good friends. Marshall’s main biographer, Juan Williams, put it as: “The two men loved to drink bourbon and tell stories full of lies.”
Marshall became the 96th person to hold the position, and more importantly, the first African American. But making history doesn’t always come easily. Being a pioneer means facing those with old ideas and perspectives. Once nominated, Marshall faced a group of unpleasant characters in the Senate. Take the chairman of the Judiciary Committee of Mississippi, James Eastland, for example.
He was a notorious racist whose father lynched a black couple. Eastland himself even owned a plantation that employed over 100 black sharecroppers. Despite the hate, Marshall had to look forward. He once described his legal philosophy in a simple way: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
Another major case in Marshall’s repertoire is the case of Sweatt v. Painter that occurred in 1950. It was a Supreme Court case that challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation – and won. The case involved a black man named Heman Marion Sweatt, who was denied admission to the School of Law at the University of Texas.
The school’s president, Theophilus Painter, rejected Sweatt on the grounds that the Texas State Constitution banned integrated education. The Court ended up favoring Sweatt, holding that when considering graduate education, it’s an experience that must be considered as part of the “substantive equality.” The case was the catalyst to the revolutionary case of Brown v. Board of Education that happened four years later.
Marshall’s most famous case as a lawyer was that of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that “separate but equal” public education was no longer applicable to public education because it could never truly be equal. The case started in 1951, when a public school in Topeka, Kansas, which was closest to their home, refused to accept the daughter of a local black resident named Oliver Brown.
Instead, she was forced to ride a bus to a segregated black elementary school that was much farther away. The Browns, and 12 other local black families, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education, claiming that its segregation policy was unconstitutional.
At first, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas made a verdict against the Browns. But then, when they were represented by Thurgood Marshall, who appealed the case to the Supreme Court, they were given a second chance. Marshall successfully argued their case, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court was unanimously (9–0) in favor of the Brown family.
Most Americans were happy to hear the Court’s decision, but many white Southerners complained. Sadly, a lot of southern white Americans viewed the case as “a day of catastrophe — a Black Monday — a day, something like Pearl Harbor.” In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd even went so far as to organize the Massive Resistance Movement, which included closing schools rather than desegregating them.
For decades after the Brown v. Board decision, black teachers, principals, and other school staff members who worked in segregated Black schools were being fired or laid. Why? Because Southerners were trying to create a new system of integrated schools, but with white leadership. Historian Michael Fultz explained, “In many ways, the South moved faster, with more ‘deliberate speed’ in displacing Black educators than it did in desegregating schools.”
Other communities were affected by the new law, including Native Americans who were also prohibited from attending white schools. Native American children who were with a “light-complexion” were allowed to ride school buses to the previously all-white schools, but dark-skinned Native children were still barred from riding those same buses.
The recent film ‘Marshall’ is about a real trial that Marshall was involved in. But the case, for some reason and despite being made into a Hollywood biopic, isn’t one of his famous lawsuits. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t a grand civil-rights case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Or maybe it’s because the name of the man Marshall defended didn’t go down in history.
This part of civil-rights history is often overshadowed, but no less important. The case involved a rich white Connecticut woman named Eleanor Strubing, who accused her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell, of raping her while her husband was out of town on one December night in 1940.
Strubing claimed that over the course of that night, Spell raped her four times, wrote a ransom note, gagged her, and threw her into a reservoir. As for Spell, after 17 hours of questioning, he did admit that he initiated a sexual interaction, but that it was actually consensual, and they stopped when she said she was worried about being discovered.
Thurgood Marshall and local attorney Samuel Friedman suggested that Strubing lied about the rape to cover up her own guilt and fear about what she did. They convinced the jury that her story wasn’t consistent with her own previous statements nor the physical evidence. Ultimately, Spell was found not guilty. For Marshall, cases like Joseph Spell’s were a break from the segregation cases that were occupying his time.
The celebrated lawyer “stood as a living, breathing shield for black people against the lynch mob as well as the judge’s death sentence,” according to his biographer Williams. While segregation wasn’t the law of the land in states like Connecticut, the Spell case served as a reminder that Marshall as this type of shield was necessary for the North, too, and not just in the South.
With barriers on employment, education, and residency, black people in America were left with very few options beyond the kind of work that Spell did. Proving his innocence was also a matter of life and death in terms of the economy since reports were spreading of fearful white families dismissing their black employees.
The Strubing vs. Spell case was so famous that Spell’s name appears in a letter from French author Carl Van Vechten to poet Langston Hughes: “Joseph Spell, just freed of a charge of rape, is in need of a job. He is basking in publicity in the Amsterdam News office and has a tremendous fan mail!” After winning his case, Spell moved to New Jersey, where he lived with his wife until he died.
At the time of Spell’s trial, “The northern media did not do a very good job of looking in their own back yard when it came to racism and segregation. And it still happens. These code words and narratives have been around for a long, long time,” journalist Wil Haygood said.
In the 1950s, Marshall was something of an informant to the FBI, and he tipped them off about communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP. But then again, Marshall himself was the subject of FBI investigation, which was directed by none other than his drinking pal J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI files, some tried to connect Marshall to communism.
The notorious House Un-American Activities Committee tried to connect his membership in the National Lawyers Guild to a group that was called “the legal bulwark of the Communist Party.” Once Marshall was nominated to the Supreme Court, his rivals tried again to tie him to communism. But the FBI simply couldn’t find any confirmation.
After a rocky start, John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to his first judicial role. In 1961, Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to meet Marshall regarding civil rights. But Marshall didn’t really hit it off with the Kennedys and felt that his experience on the topic was being overlooked. The way Marshall put it: Bobby “spent all his time telling us what we should do.”
But a few months later, Kennedy nominated Marshall for the U.S. Court of Appeals. A year later, the Senate confirmed his nomination, despite the objection of a number of southern Senators. Then, as was mentioned earlier, President Johnson made it so that Marshall could get into the Supreme Court in 1967. Marshall has both presidents to thank for some major events in his career.
During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall had a perfect record of supporting both affirmative action and opposing capital punishment. But by the 80s, he grew frustrated with the Court, and by 1991, he announced his retirement. In 2010, President Obama nominated one of Marshall’s former clerks, Elena Kagan, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During Kagan’s confirmation hearing, senators had questioned her connection to Marshall and even criticized his record. But Kagan only spoke fondly about her former colleague: “This was a man who created opportunities for so many people in this country and improved their lives. I would call him a hero. I would call him the greatest lawyer of the twentieth century.”
Marshall passed away from heart failure in Maryland on January 24, 1993. He was 84 years old. He was then buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Marshall left all of his personal documents and notes to the Library of Congress. His papers were opened for immediate use by scholars, journalists, and the public. The Library of Congress insisted that it was Marshall’s intent.
But according to Marshall’s family and close associates, that wasn’t the case. The decision to make his documents public was ultimately supported by the American Library Association. In the end, the papers were already made public and couldn’t be retrieved, whether the family wanted it that way or not.
In 2006, a one-man play called James Earl Jones was written by George Stevens Jr. It premiered at the Westport Country Playhouse and starred none other than James Earl Jones. The play later opened on Broadway in 2008, this time starring Laurence Fishburne. The production was described as “one of the most frank, informed, and searing discussions of race you will ever see on TV.”
There’s also the film ‘Marshall,’ which was discussed earlier. It stars Chadwick Boseman as Marshall, and Josh Gad as Samuel Friedman, the other lawyer. Kate Hudson plays Eleanor Strubing, and Sterling K. Brown played the man in question – Joseph Spell. Overall, the movie fared pretty well. Rolling Stone said it was “Charged by Boseman’s dramatic lightning, Marshall gives us an electrifying glimpse of a great man in the making.”
Other than the famous poet Langston Hughes, Marshall’s other college classmates included Cab Calloway and the future president of Ghana. But it doesn’t look like these fellas were victims of Marshall’s pranks and antics. Marshall was only 32 years old when he won his first case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Chambers v. Florida. The case established that confessions received as the result of police coercion should not be counted as evidence.
After the death of his first wife, Vivian, in 1955, he married Cecilia Suyat. They had two sons: Thurgood Jr. and John. After he died, the newly inaugurated President Clinton posthumously awarded Marshall the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.