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At a time like this, we take a look at the life and legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, to William and Norma Marshall. From a very young age, Marshall’s parents instilled in him a deep sense of appreciation for the U.S. Constitution and for the principle of rule of law. He also learned how to debate at a very young age as a result of his father taking him and his brother to watch judicial proceedings.
Fast forward to 1930, Marshall enrolled himself in Howard University School of Law and it was here that his personal views on racial discrimination were strongly influenced by Charles Hamilton Houston, the law school’s Dean. Three years later, in 1930, he graduated magna cum laude (with distinction) and stood first in his law class. After graduation, he started a private law practice in his hometown of Baltimore.
A year later, he successfully represented the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in the discrimination suit Murray v. Pearson and thus began his long affiliation with the organization. He was appointed as the Chief Counsel for NAACP at the young age of 32. In this capacity, he argued numerous civil rights cases before the Supreme Court ranging from Smith v. Allwright in 1944 to Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, winning 29 of the 32 cases that he took part in.
But his most historic and consequential case came in 1954 when he represented Oliver Brown, an African-American father in a case against the Topeka Board of Education. This case, titled Brown v. Board of Education founds its way to the Supreme Court which in 1954 passed the landmark ruling that judged racial segregation in schools a violation of the U.S. Constitution and thus ordered the desegregation of American schools.
As a testament to Thurgood Marshall’s legal intellect and competence, President Kennedy, in 1961, nominated him to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and later in 1965, President Johnson appointed him as the Solicitor General of the United States. In this capacity, he represented the government in 19 cases and won 14 of them. He later remarked that this was the best job he ever had.
Four years later, in 1967, upon the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, President Johnson nominated and the Senate confirmed Thurgood Marshall to the highest court in the land. During his time on the bench, he compiled a liberal record that included strong support for the constitutional protection of individual rights and opposition to the death penalty. His philosophy of judicial activism was eloquently described by this quote of his “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up”.
After serving on the bench for 24 years, Justice Marshall retired from the court in 1991 due to failing health, and the vacancy thus created was filled by Clarence Thomas who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the October of 1991.
Two years into his retirement, Thurgood Marshall passed away on January 24, 1993, due to heart failure at the age of 84. After laying in state in the Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court Building, he was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.