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Thurgood Marshall Next
Digital History ID 3318

 

Thurgood Marshall laid the legal foundation for the end of segregation in the South. With the legislative and executive branches of government largely indifferent to racial discrimination, Marshall turned to the courts to prove that separate facilities for blacks and whites were inherently unequal. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. In his biggest victory, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) of Topeka, Kansas, he persuaded a unanimous Supreme Court to rule that the "separate but equal" doctrine was unconstitutional.

For nearly three decades, Marshall had chipped away at the laws upholding segregation. As the NAACP's lead counsel, he won equal pay for black teachers, forced segregated courts to allow blacks to serve on juries, and ended the use of restrictive covenants that barred blacks and Jews from segregated neighborhoods. He also persuaded the Supreme Court to end the practice of all-white primaries and to outlaw segregated seating on interstate buses and trains.

He was the target of numerous death threats. On at least two occasions, he was threatened by lynch mobs.

Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Md.--a city in which an African American could not become a licensed plumber until 1949 and where an interracial tennis match in 1948 resulted in 34 arrests. Marshall attended a segregated high school in Baltimore and then went to Lincoln University, where the student body was all black and the faculty all white. His classmates included the poet Langston Hughes and Kwame Nkrumah, one of the leaders in Africa's decolonization.

Because the University of Maryland Law School refused to accept blacks, his mother had to pawn her engagement and wedding rings so that he could attend Howard Law School. Marshall graduated first in his law school class. In 1935, when he was just 26 years old and only two years out of law school, he got revenge against the University of Maryland Law School when he persuaded a judge to order the university to admit a black student (there were no separate black law schools in the state at that time).

In 1938, at the age of 30, Marshall became the NAACP's chief counsel. Convinced that a direct attack on the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson(1896) decision and its doctrine of separate but equal would fail, he initially directed his attention at areas where Southern states made no provision for African Americans, such as the systematic exclusion of blacks from professional schools, juries, and primary elections. Only when he had won these path-breaking cases did he move on to attack segregation outright. Few Americans have done so much to change our nation and to help it live up to the ideals on which it was founded.

In 1961, Marshall became a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the post of solicitor general, the government's chief trial lawyer. Two years later, Marshall became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.

When Marshall died in 1993 at the age of 84, his dream of equality and integration had only been partially realized. In that year, 39 years after the Brown decision, two-thirds of African American children attend primarily black schools. A tribute to Marshall at the time of his death underscores his significance: "We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall."

World War II dramatized the glaring contradiction between the American ideal of equal rights and the reality of racial inequality. As president, Harry S. Truman struggled to overcome this contradiction. He named the first African American, William H. Hastie, to the federal bench. He ordered the integration of the armed forces. Almost all of his civil rights proposals, however, including bills to outlaw the poll tax and suppress lynching, were defeated because of opposition from white Southern Democrats.

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