Thurgood Marshall - History

Thurgood Marshall - History

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Thurgood Marshall

1908- 1991

Supreme Court

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore Maryland. He went to public school and graduated third in his high school class. He went to Lincoln College and Howard Law School where he graduated first in his class.

After graduating he opened a private practice where he represented the National Association of Colored People in many cases.eHe ventually headed the organization's Legal Defense and Education Fund. It was Marshall as chief counsel in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case who argued before the Supreme Court in 1954.

After serving as a federal judge, Marshall was elevated by President Johnson to the Supreme Court, where he sat firmly in the liberal wing even as the Court grew more conservative over the years. Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served from 1967 to 1991.


Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

5 Major Accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall

When Thurgood Marshall became Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, he was more than just the ninety-sixth individual to hold the honor. He was the first African-American to hold this extraordinary post, as well. While this is perhaps the most well-known accomplishment of Thurgood Marshall’s career, it is not the only thing he has accomplished by a long shot.

1. He Served As A Justice For 24 Years

While Marshall did not have as satisfying a career as an Associate Justice as he may have perhaps liked, there is no question that he accomplished a great deal on the bench. One of these accomplishments would have to be the fact that he served for an impressive twenty-four years. Over the course of that career, there is no question that he heard some of the most significant social and political arguments in American history.

2. He Was First In His Class

Thurgood Marshall refused to give up on his dreams. For example, at the beginning of his legal career, he was actually rejected by Maryland Law School. However, he turned this misfortune around by going on to not only study at Howard, but to come out of Howard as number one in his class. It was also during this time that Marshall found his mentor in Charles Houston, the iconic civil liberties lawyer.

3. He Was NAACP Chief Counsel

Marshall worked extensively with the NAACP for much of his career. It was during this remarkable period of his life that he achieved the position of Chief Counsel. In fact, when he became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, some criticized the move, calling Marshall a “judicial activist.”

4. He Won A Lot More Than He Lost

Over the course of his career as Chief Counsel for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall brought thirty-two civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. Of those thirty-two cases Thurgood Marshall argued, he won an impressive twenty-nine. Chambers vs. Florida is only one example of the many significant cases Marshall argued and won as the top lawyer for the NAACP.

5. Solicitor General

Before Thurgood Marshall achieved the significant milestone of becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Associate Justice, Marshall achieved the accomplishment of becoming the first African-American Solicitor General. Marshall would hold this position for only a couple of years, before Lyndon Johnson had him appointed to the Supreme Court.

These are just five of the notable things Thurgood Marshall accomplished, over the course of his remarkable life.

Thurgood Marshall confirmed as Supreme Court justice

On August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. He would remain on the Supreme Court for 24 years before retiring for health reasons, leaving a legacy of upholding the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

From a young age, Marshall seemed destined for a place in the American justice system. His parents instilled in him an appreciation for the Constitution, a feeling that was reinforced by his schoolteachers, who forced him to read the document as punishment for his misbehavior. After graduating from Lincoln University in 1930, Marshall sought admission to the University of Maryland School of Law, but was turned away because of the school’s segregation policy, which effectively forbade blacks from studying with whites. Instead, Marshall attended Howard University Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1933. (Marshall later successfully sued Maryland School of Law for their unfair admissions policy.)

Setting up a private practice in his home state of Maryland, Marshall quickly established a reputation as a lawyer for the “little man.” In a year’s time, he began working with the Baltimore NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and went on to become the organization’s chief counsel by the time he was 32, in 1940. Over the next two decades, Marshall distinguished himself as one of the country’s leading advocates for individual rights, winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court, all of which challenged in some way the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that had been established by the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The high-water mark of Marshall’s career as a litigator came in 1954 with his victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In that case, Marshall argued that the ‘separate but equal’ principle was unconstitutional, and designed to keep blacks 𠇊s near [slavery] as possible.”

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall may have been inspired to become a lawyer after pulling a prank in high school.

As punishment, his principal made Marshall read the U.S. Constitution, which outlines the rights all Americans should have. But Marhsall was born on July 2, 1908, in Maryland, a time when Black people were discriminated against in southern states. He knew that Black people didn't have the same rights as other white Americans and realized the best way to fight for justice was through the law.

After graduating from law school, Marshall started working on civil rights cases to fight for equality for African Americans. But probably his best known case was Brown vs. Board of Education, which challenged school segregation, when white and Black students are forced to go to separate schools. Marshall argued in front of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, that "separate" was not equal, as people who supported segregation believed. (Part of this case involved an African-American student from Kansas who wanted to go to a white school six blocks from her house instead of riding a bus to a Black school more than a mile away.) The justices agreed with Marshall, and in 1954 school segregation was abolished.

Desegregation happened slowly, but Marshall kept fighting. Then in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the first African-American justice to serve on the Supreme Court. He continued to fight for civil rights, using the law to protect the all people. He died on January 24, 1993.

When Did Thurgood Marshall Establish the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund?

After founding the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1940, Marshall became the key strategist in the effort to end racial segregation, in particular meticulously challenging Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court-sanctioned legal doctrine that called for “separate but equal” structures for white and blacks. Marshall won a series of court decisions that gradually struck down that doctrine, ultimately leading to Brown v. Board of Education , which he argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953, finally overturning “separate but equal” and acknowledging that segregation greatly diminished students’ self-esteem. Asked by Justice Felix Frankfurter during the argument what he meant by “equal,” Mr. Marshall replied, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.

In 1957 LDF, led by Marshall, became an entirely separate entity from the NAACP with its own leadership and board of directors and has remained a separate organization to this day.

As a lead legal architect of the civil rights movement, Marshall constantly traveled to small, dusty, scorching courtrooms throughout the south. At one point, he oversaw as many as 450 simultaneous cases. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged a whites-only primary election in Texas in addition to a case in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that barred blacks from buying or renting homes could not be enforced in state courts.

Accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

Prior to his appointment to the position of associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Thurgood Marshall made huge waves as a civil rights activist/lawyer. Marshall famously argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The most famous of those cases was Brown v. Board of Education in 1940.

Thurgood Marshall served on the bench of our nation’s highest court (the U.S. Supreme Court) from October 1967 to October 1991. As a justice in the court, Justice Marshall was a vocal advocate of racial equality, individual, women’s and civil rights. He holds a memorable place in the collective minds of Americans because he devoted the bulk of his life defending the rights and freedoms of minorities in the United States.

The article below captures 10 major accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall:

Protested vehemently against racial segregation laws

Marshall grew up in an era when racial segregation laws (i.e. Jim Crow) in the United States were rife. Starting from an early age, he always embraced opportunities that allowed him to push back against racial segregation laws using legal means. For example, he showcased this in his sophomore year when he protested against racial segregation laws in public facilities, especially at film theaters.

Developed a strong working relationship with the NAACP

Determined to continue his pursuit for racial equality and social transformational laws, Marshall set his sights on creating a successful private law practice after graduating from the Howard University of Law School. After establishing his law firm, Marshall proceeded to form a strong alliance with the National Association for the Advancement of colored People (NAACP).

Won the Murray v. Pearson case of 1936

On several occasions he served as the legal counsel for the NAACP. In 1934, for example, Marshall offered his legal services for the Murray v. Pearson case. The case saw Marshall argue that it was unconstitutional for the University of Maryland Law School to use segregation laws to deny admission to Donald Gaines Murray – a black student from Amherst College. He argued that such practice was a gross violation of the “separate but equal” doctrine from the case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Marshall emerged victorious in that case by making very logical arguments before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Emerged victorious in the Supreme Court case Chambers v. Florida (1940)

In 1940, Marshall, 32 years at the time, argued before the Supreme Court in the landmark case – Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940). The case involved analyzing how the police and interrogators’ use of pressure in some way violated the Due Process clause.

Thurgood represented four black men (including Mr. Chambers) who were convicted of killing a white man in Florida. Marshall argued that the state of Florida held the defendants without giving them any legal counsel. It was also stated that interrogators ploughed through the questioning session without informing the defendants of their rights to remain silent, which resulted in the defendants confessing to the murder. The defendants were later convicted and given the death sentences.

After making a sound argument before the Supreme Court, Marshall was able to secure a decision in favor of the defendants. The defendants’ earlier convictions were overturned by the court because the police officers broke the law by not following due process as they compelled the defendants to give out their confessions.

Founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Following his his high profile argument before the Supreme Court in the case Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940), Thurgood Marshall and his associates founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). The fund was aimed at promoting structural and social changes in the community. Marshall hoped that those changes would lead to the elimination of racial disparities, which would in turn create an environment free of racial discrimination. To this day, the LDF, which is currently based in New York City, continues to take on several cases involving minorities in the United States and across the world.

Won the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Marshall was heavily involved during the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case of 1954. In the end, the Supreme Court passed a verdict on May 17, 1954, which made it unconstitutional for racial segregation in public schools to go on. It was a huge case which caused considerable amount of racial tension in the United States. Marshall was at the heart of it all from start to finish.

Kind courtesy to his arguments, the court arrived at a unanimous decision (9-0) and stated that segregation in public schools, regardless of whether the facilities were the same in the segregated schools, resulted in inherently unequal quality. Marshall was able to prove to the court that segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The verdict in so many ways overruled the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Fergusson (1896) which held the doctrine of “separate but equal”.

Thurgood Marshall won Smith v. Allwright, 339 U.S. 649 (1944)

This case was in relation to voting rights for blacks. After a lengthy argument before the Supreme Court, Marshall successfully convinced the court to overturn the state of Texas law that allowed political parties to adopt racial laws to the disadvantage of blacks. The Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ law was unconstitutional since it promoted discrimination and excluded blacks and other minorities from voting in the primary. Political parties were therefore not allowed to set their own rules with respect to elections.

First African American to become Solicitor General of the United States

As a result of his stellar performances and arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, Marshall’s status among the African American communities and the U.S. in general was very high. His meteoric rise caught the attention of President of John F. Kennedy and in 1961, Marshall was nominated by JFK to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His nomination was easily approved by the Senate.

After about four years of service in the court, Marshall made history by becoming the first African American to be appointed Solicitor General of the United States. His appointment came from President Lyndon B. Johnson. During his time as solicitor General, he clinched victory in 14 of the 19 cases presented before the Supreme Court.

He was the first African American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Marshall’s meteoric rise did not end as a Solicitor General. In 1967, he etched his name in the annals of history as he became the first African American to serve on the bench of the US Supreme Court. Marshall replaced Justice Tom C. Clark. Owing to the goodwill he had across the political divide, his nomination was confirmed by the Senate in a 69 to 11 vote on August 30, 1967. He thus became the 96th person to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

His 24-year stay in the Supreme Court saw him offer immeasurable support to the protection of minorities in terms of individual rights, civil rights and rights for accused criminals. Thurgood Marshall was also a vocal supporter of women’s rights and their rights to abortion. The renowned justice also voiced his opposition towards the death penalty, regarding it as very unconstitutional in all cases.

Thurgood Marshall: A Life in American History

Thurgood Marshall is best remembered as the first African American Supreme Court Justice. But to only remember him in that way is to do him an injustice. He had a remarkable and significant career before his appointment to the Supreme Court. He worked as a lawyer for the NAACP for several decades. During that time, he acquired the title of “Mr. Civil Rights” for his efforts combating laws and litigating court cases detrimental to African Americans. Why Marshall decided to take on this task and the impact he had on American society during the course of his career is important for every American to know and appreciate.

Dr. Spencer R. Crew is Interim Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He has worked in public history institutions for more than twenty-five years, having served as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for six years and worked at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution for twenty years. Dr. Crew is the author of several books, including Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940 Black Life in Secondary Cities: A Comparative Analysis of the Black Communities of Camden and Elizabeth, N.J., 1860–1920 and Thurgood Marshall: A Life in American History.

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A Supreme Legacy

President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Marshall U.S. solicitor general and on Aug. 30, 1967, Marshall was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and joined the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first Black justice.

During his nearly 25-year tenure on the Supreme Court, Marshall fought for affirmative action for minorities, held strong against the death penalty, and supported of a woman's right to choose if an abortion was appropriate for her. The civil rights lawyer turned Supreme Court justice made a significant impact on American society and culture. His mission was equal justice for all. Marshall used the power of the courts to fight racism and discrimination, tear down Jim Crow segregation, change the status quo, and make life better for the most vulnerable in our nation.

History Calling: LBJ and Thurgood Marshall on the Telephone

When President Lyndon B. Johnson called Thurgood Marshall to offer him the position of Solicitor General of the United States, Johnson reiterated his commitment to doing the job that Abraham Lincoln started by “going all the way” on civil rights, but he warned Marshall that the appointment would cause the Senate to go over him with “a fine tooth comb.” In the July 1965 phone call, Johnson speaks on a wide variety of issues including the image of the United States abroad, the state of the Civil Rights Movement, the importance of “Negro” representation in the justice system, and finally, his thinly veiled, ultimate goal of placing Marshall on the Supreme Court. A monumental historical moment, LBJ’s call to Marshall set in motion a series of events that would culminate in Marshall becoming the first African American Solicitor General and the first African American Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

Thurgood Marshall talks to President Johnson at the White House (via Wikimedia Commons).

Thurgood Marshall rose to fame in the 1940s for his work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, created by Marshall as the legal arm of the NAACP, designed to assault discrimination and segregation. Amassing a huge array of legal victories such as in Smith v. Allwright (1944), Shelby v. Kraemer (1948), and most famously Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Marshall came to be known as “Mr. Civil Rights.” At the time of Johnson’s call, Marshall was serving on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, having been appointed in 1961. Johnson, however, had his attentions focused on not just the Civil Rights Movement, but also the growing war in Vietnam. Throughout June and July of 1965, Johnson was forced to consider raising the number of active ground forces and found himself continually at odds with his advisors and the American public. Coupled with the public resignation of the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, Johnson, who often did not want to focus on foreign affairs, found himself facing a series of political and military losses. Johnson hoped to focus his moral idealism and religious convictions on the civil rights struggle, and when told he should de-emphasize civil rights, Johnson remarked, “well, what the hell is the presidency for?”

This recording of the telephone conversation between LBJ and Thurgood Marshall is included in a collection LBJ’s White House telephone conversations made on Dictaphone Dictabelt Records between November 1963 and November 1969. Johnson initially began recording conversations and speeches while in the Senate and continued that practice as President. The recording of presidential meetings and phone calls was first begun by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who aimed to improve consistency in White House public statements and messaging, while also having the option for conclusive proof in the case of false claims made about the administration.

President Johnson meeting with Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (via Wikimedia Commons).

The recording elucidates the tensions Johnson felt between the morality of the Civil Rights Movement and the practicalities of the political climate that he experienced throughout his presidency. Johnson’s actions during the Civil Rights Movement have been a subject of intense study by historians, who seek to understand where the motivations for Johnson’s involvement came from, and how strongly moral and religious principles guided him in comparison with political realities. Randall B. Woods argues that Johnson’s moral and ethical idealism drove both his home front and war front actions, while Sylvia Ellis contends that pragmatism and realism governed Johnson’s racial and foreign policies.[1] Johnson began the phone call to Marshall with an exasperated sigh stating that he has “a very big problem,” which he hopes Marshall will help him with. His tone seems exhausted and his choice to view the appointment as a problem, points to his pragmatism and recognition that the political climate made Marshall’s nomination very challenging. Throughout the call, Johnson never refers to the position as a great honor, but rather an opportunity to raise the character and image of the United States abroad, (he even tells Marshall that he “loses a lot” by taking the position). He seems to view the nomination of Marshall as a duty as well as a politically calculated choice of a “Negro” who is also “a damn good lawyer.” The pragmatic influence takes hold, and Johnson’s political calculations continue to be apparent, as he expresses the difficulties with pushing Marshall’s nomination through Congress, and not wanting to be “clipped from behind.”

Thurgood Marshall in 1967 (via Wikimedia Commons).

Johnson’s comments, however, could be viewed through the lens of morality, rather than pragmatism. His statements about Marshall being a symbol for the “people of the world” could reflect his view that Marshall would be an important beacon of equality across the world. Furthermore, his obvious admiration for Marshall’s political abilities and his strong conviction to back him regardless of what anyone else said, could show Johnson’s commitment to making a decision that reflects his own moral compass. Johnson says that he “doesn’t need any votes” and that he isn’t doing this for the votes, but rather because he wants “justice to be done.” This recording does not solve the debate on Johnson’s ambiguity, but rather continues it, with Johnson’s statements supporting both pragmatism and morality, depending on how one hears the recording.

What is left unsaid is just as interesting. Marshall says very little throughout the conversation. When Johnson describes Marshall as a symbol for “negro representation,” Marshall does not really respond. The question of Marshall’s role as a “race man,” who clearly defines his identity as “black” and seeks to bring about the progression of black people, has been a subject of much debate among historians and legal scholars that is not resolved by this conversation.[2] But this telephone call offers a snapshot of the struggle between practicality and morality would dominate the careers of both Thurgood Marshall and Lyndon Johnson.

Audio recording of this phone call may be found on Youtube. The original is housed at the LBJ Library: Recording of Telephone Conversation between Lyndon B. Johnson and Thurgood Marshall, July 7, 1965, 1:30 PM, Citation #8307, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings.

Other Sources:
Wil Haygood, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America (2015).
David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000).
Abe Fortas, “Portrait of a Friend,” in Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., The Johnson Presidency: Twenty Intimate Perspectives of Lyndon B. Johnson (1986).

[1] Randall B. Woods “The Politics of Idealism: Lyndon Johnson, Civil Rights, and Vietnam,” Diplomatic History Volume 31, Issue 1, 2007. Sylvia Ellis, Freedom’s Pragmatist: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013).

[2] Sheryll D. Cashin “Justice Thurgood Marshall: A Race Man’s Race-Transcending Jurisprudence,” Howard Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3, 2009.

Also by Augusta Dell’Omo on Not Even Past:
Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman (1992).

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The organization was established in 1987, under the leadership of Dr. N. Joyce Payne in cooperation with Miller Brewing Company, Sony Music, the NBA, Reebok and the American Association for State Colleges and Universities to Institutionally support the public HBCUs. It underwent a name change in 2006 from the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. [3]

TMCF has championed higher education at public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and has grown from a small organization providing scholarships for public HBCUs, raising over $300 million to date for programmatic support, capacity building support, and scholarships for its member-schools and the students matriculating on the campuses. [4]

Its mission differs from that of the United Negro College Fund, which supported approximately 65,000 students at 900 colleges and universities with approximately $113 million in grants and scholarships in 2015 alone, while the Thurgood Marshall College fund only supports 47 schools it is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, charitable organization, which means it does not pay taxes on its income. [5]

TMCF was granted $50 million in 2015 by Apple, [6] $26.5 million in 2017 by the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries, [7] and $6 million by The Boeing Company in 2018. [8]

In 2013, TMCF acquired the Opportunity Funding Corporation (OFC), merging the two organizations with TMCF becoming the parent organization. Both organizations share a similar mission of providing service to the HBCU community, particularly in the area of talent identification. While continuing its efforts to enhance the entrepreneurship curriculum within public and private HBCUs, OFC will now focus on identifying the most promising future entrepreneurs and introducing them to potential investors and very successful entrepreneurs. [9]

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