Thurgood Marshall (1908 – 1993)
Dale G. Larrimore, Esquire
This month we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Thurgood Marshall becoming the first African American on the United States Supreme Court. Often lauded for his insightful legal opinions as a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall’s career as a trial attorney before he took the bench is even more significant.
The great-grandson of slaves, Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908. As a child his parents instilled in him an appreciation for the Constitution, a feeling reinforced by teachers who forced him to read the document as punishment for acting up in school. He observed segregation at an early age as his mother taught kindergarten in all-black schools, where she earned far less, by law, than white teachers.
After graduating from Lincoln University in 1930, Marshall sought admission to the University of Maryland School of Law, but was turned away because the school’s segregation policy effectively prevented blacks from studying with whites. Marshall attended Howard University Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1933. He opened his own law practice in Baltimore, and began to volunteer with the NAACP, where he successfully sued Maryland School of Law for its discriminatory admissions policy.
Marshall joined the legal division of the NAACP in 1936 and two years later he succeeded his mentor, Charles Houston, in the organization’s top legal post. Over the next two decades, Marshall distinguished himself as one of the country’s leading advocates for individual rights, successfully arguing before the Supreme Court in cases such as Boynton v. Trailways. Marshall won 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court, most of which challenged in some way the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that had been established in 1896 by the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The high-water mark of Marshall’s career as a litigator came in 1954 with his groundbreaking victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case that was consolidated with similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
In Brown, Marshall argued that the ‘separate but equal’ principle was unconstitutional, and designed to keep blacks “as near [slavery] as possible” and, as we all now know, the Court agreed, holding that school segregation was illegal as it violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, delivered the unanimous ruling: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This decision served as a great impetus for the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately led to the abolishment of de jure segregation in all public facilities and accommodations.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but his nomination was opposed by many Southern senators, delaying his confirmation until the next year. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named him as the United States Solicitor General, where Marshall successfully argued on behalf of the United States in Miranda v. Arizona and U.S. v. Price. Following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court on June 13, 1967. After a vigorous and often heated debate, his appointment was confirmed by the Senate on August 30, 1967 with a 69-11 vote.
As an Associate Justice on the highest court in America, Marshall continued his lifelong fight against discrimination, writing numerous opinions protecting the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable Americans. Over the next 24 years, Justice Marshall consistently opposed the death penalty and any discrimination based on race or sex, while supporting the rights of criminal defendants. He also defended affirmative action and women’s right to abortion; and continued his tireless commitment to ensuring equitable treatment of individuals–particularly minorities–by state and federal governments. As appointments changed the politics of the Court, Marshall found his liberal opinions increasingly in the minority.
After a very distinguished career on the Supreme Court, Justice Marshall retired in 1991, in poor health, and two years later passed away. He left us with a legacy of upholding the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recently posited that “Thurgood Marshall was the greatest lawyer of the 20th century. No one did more to advance justice.” In a recent celebration of Thurgood Marshall’s life in Philadelphia, Villanova Law School Professor Catherine Lanctot was even more persuasive in suggesting that if we measure greatness by the impact that a person has had and the number of people influenced by those efforts, then Thurgood Marshall should be recognized as the greatest lawyer in American history.
As we look back on his incredible life, we might reflect on his own words. In a commencement address given in May of 1978 at the University of Virginia, Thurgood Marshall had this to say to the graduates:
The democratizing aspect of the Constitution cannot be overstated. For me, its cardinal principle is that all persons stand in a position of equality before the law. The Constitution gives each and every one of you an equal right to your own opinions and to participate in the process of your own governance. These are precious rights that we must continually strive to preserve, and whose promise we must seek to attain. There are still far too many persons in this country who cannot participate as equals in the processes of Government—persons too poor, too ignorant, persons discriminated against by other people for no good reason. But our ideal, the ideal of our Constitution, is to eliminate these barriers to the aspirations of all Americans to participate fully in our government and society. We have realized it far better than most countries, but we still have a long way to travel and we must continue to strive in that direction.…
Governments derive their power from many sources—the military or police are instruments of power and many in the short run enforce the government’s directives against an unwilling people. But authority is a different question—and no government can govern long, or well, without the authority that comes from a shared consensus among the governed. They must believe that theirs is a rightful, and lawful, and just government.
But in order to preserve this power in the people—the power of defining and limiting the authority of their government—it is first and foremost essential that the people be well informed.… [T]he duty to keep up,… to be knowledgeable in some area of human endeavor, is an essential one, not only for the continued survival of our government but in the long run for our civilization. It is hard work being well-informed; but it is essential work for the citizens of a democracy.…
Those of you here today about to use your degrees, it is for you now to undertake the projects of this age.… It is not for me to tell you what these are—each generation must find its own calling. But you have the energies of youth—and while you have them, use them, that you may look back on your lives with as much a sense of accomplishment as Jefferson no doubt did.…
Each of you as an individual must pick your own goals. Listen to others but do not become a blind follower. Do not wait for others to move out—move out yourself—where you see wrong or inequality or injustice speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy—make it—protect it—pass it on. You are ready. Go to it.
His words speak volumes to all of us even today, almost 40 years later.