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Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993) was an American jurist and the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Marshall served on the Court from 1967 to 1991. In 1946 he was awarded the Springarn Medal for all his achievements and hard work for the NAACP. Marshall had been one of the NAACP's top lawyers. He was also Solicitor General of the United States.

Early life and education

Thurgood Marshall was originally named "Thoroughgood" (his paternal grandfather's name), but he changed it to the briefer "Thurgood" when he was in the second grade.

Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Norma and William Canfield Marshall. His father held various jobs as a waiter in hotels, in clubs, and on railroad cars, and his mother was a schoolteacher. The family moved to New York City in search of better employment opportunities not long after Thurgood's birth. They returned to Baltimore when he was six years old. He was an energetic and boisterous child who frequently found himself in trouble.

Marshall attended the Colored High and Training School (later Frederick Douglass High School) in Baltimore. He graduated in 1925 with honors. He then enrolled at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the oldest college for African Americans in the United States. His classmates included the poet Langston Hughes.

He graduated with honors in 1930 with a bachelor's degree in American literature and philosophy. After that, being unable to attend the all-white University of Maryland Law School, Marshall applied to Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and was admitted. At Howard, he was mentored by Charles Hamilton Houston, who taught his students to be "social engineers" willing to use the law to fight for civil rights.

Marshall graduated first in his class in June 1933 and passed the Maryland bar examination later that year.


Marshall joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and became an active member. In 1934, Marshall became director of the NAACP, Legal Defense and for an Educational Fund. He won his first major civil rights case in Maryland in 1935 with the help of Charles Houston. He won 29 of 32 Supreme Court cases. He went on to argue thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court in 1940.

Prominent cases

  • Marshall argued in the Smith v. Allwright which disputed the rights of black people from voting in 1944.
  • He fought in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka about racial segregation in public schools in 1948, which was one of the biggest cases of the century. In 1954 the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools. This was a rule violation of the 14th Amendment. It made way for integration and was a major victory of the civil rights movement.

He then went on to investigate U.S. Army courts-martial in 1950-1951, in Japan and Korea to help African American soldiers. In 1961 John F. Kennedy appointed him to the US Court of Appeals and he won 29 cases before attending the Supreme Court.

Between the years 1908-1993, he fought for individual rights.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who served with Marshall on the Supreme Court for a decade, wrote that "it was rare during our conference deliberations that he would not share an anecdote, a joke or a story"; although O'Connor initially treated the stories as "welcome diversions", she later "realized that behind most of the anecdotes was a relevant legal point".

Personal life

Thurgood Marshall and family, 1965
Marshall, his wife Cissy, and their children John (bottom left) and Thurgood Jr. (bottom right), 1965

Marshall married Vivian "Buster" Burey on September 4, 1929, while he was a student at Lincoln University. They remained a couple until her death from cancer in 1955.

Marshall married Cecilia "Cissy" Suyat, an NAACP secretary, eleven months later; they had two children: Thurgood Jr. and John. Thurgood Jr. became an attorney and worked in the Clinton administration, and John directed the U.S. Marshals Service and served as Virginia's secretary of public safety.

Retirement, later life, and death

Thurgood Marshall, First African-American Supreme Court Justice
Marshall's gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery

Marshall did not wish to retire—he frequently said "I was appointed to a life term, and I intend to serve it"—but he had been in ill health for many years. The 82-year-old justice announced on June 27, 1991, that he would retire. When asked at a press conference what was wrong with him that would cause him to leave the Court, he replied: "What's wrong with me? I'm old. I'm getting old and coming apart!"

President George H. W. Bush (whom Marshall loathed) nominated Clarence Thomas, a conservative who had served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, to replace Marshall. His retirement took effect on October 1.

His health continued to deteriorate, and, on January 25, 1993, at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, he died of heart failure. He was 84 years old.

Marshall lay in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, and thousands thronged there to pay their respects; more than four thousand attended his funeral service at the National Cathedral. The civil rights leader Vernon E. Jordan said that Marshall had "demonstrat[ed] that the law could be an instrument of liberation", while Chief Justice William Rehnquist gave a eulogy in which he said: "Inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court building are the words 'Equal justice under law'. Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall."

Marshall was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Interesting facts about Thurgood Marshall

  • It was Marhsall's father William who ignited his interest in law. Following legal cases was one of William's hobbies, and Thurgood often went to court with him to observe the proceedings. Marshall later said that his father "never told me to become a lawyer, but he turned me into one ... He taught me how to argue, challenged my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made, even if we were discussing the weather."
  • Marshall believed that both blacks and whites should have equal rights but it was not happening in the United States. He thought it was right for both rich and poor children to have equal rights.
  • He was against the death penalty because he didn't think that it was necessary. He said that criminals should go to prison instead.
  • Marshall was an active member of the Episcopal Church and served as a delegate to its 1964 convention.
  • He was a Prince Hall Mason, attending meetings and participating in rituals.
  • Marshall served as a visiting judge on the Second Circuit for a week in January 1992, and he received the American Bar Association's highest award in August of that year.
  • The state of Maryland renamed Baltimore's airport the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2005.
  • The University of Maryland's law library is named in his honor.
  • Buildings named for Marshall include New York's 590-foot-high Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse (renamed in 2001), where he heard cases as an appellate judge, and the federal judicial center in Washington.
  • He is the namesake of streets and schools throughout the nation.
  • Marshall posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1993, and the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor in 2003.
  • He was depicted by Sidney Poitier in the 1991 television movie Separate but Equal, by Laurence Fishburne in George Stevens Jr.'s Broadway play Thurgood, and by Chadwick Boseman in the 2017 film Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall quotes

  •  "A child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi….. has the same rights as a white boy born to the wealthiest person the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.."
  • "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
  • "Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism."
  • "The measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis."

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See also

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