54 years ago today Thurgood Marshall became first Black justice on U.S. Supreme Court

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
Thurgood Marshall Clarence Thomas supreme court brown v board of education

In a 69-11 vote, U.S. Senators in 1967 appointed 59-year-old Thurgood Marshall, a great-grandson of an enslaved African, to the highest court in the land. 

Marshall’s elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court reflected a career dedicated to obtaining full civil rights for Black Americans. While he’s perhaps most known for successfully arguing against the “separate but equal” doctrine through his win in the Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case, his legal achievements spanned decades. 

Marshall’s early years

Born to a railroad porter father and schoolteacher mother in 1908 Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall was immediately exposed to the influences of education and hard work.

Marshall graduated from Lincoln University in 1930 and planned to immediately go to University of Maryland Law School. However, the school was still segregated at the time, and his application was denied. Rather than be deterred, Marshall entered Howard University Law School and graduated first in his class. It was there that young Marshall met a mentor named Charles Hamilton Huston, who greatly influenced the direction of his life.

“Charlie Houston insisted that we be social engineers rather than lawyers,” Marshall was once quoted as saying, according to a report from NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Thurgood Marshall Clarence Thomas supreme court brown v board of education

Young Thurgood Marshall. (Thurgood Marshall College Fund)

A trailblazing lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Decades before President Johnson nominated Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, the young lawyer started his practice in the 1930s representing local NAACP chapters in cases involving racial discrimination. One of his early achievements involved successfully striking down segregation at the law school he originally planned to attend–University of Maryland.

Marshall went on to successfully argue against segregation at Universities across the country at a time when mob lynchings had already amassed thousands of Black victims since the end of the Civil War, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative.

His early achievements were quickly recognized by the NAACP, and the organization made him their chief legal counsel in 1936. Four years later, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has continued to exist as a separate entity from the NAACP.

Notable cases

Over the next two decades he went on to chip away at Jim Crow with wins in various legal cases. Two notable cases include Sweat v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education (1950), according to United States Courts.

In both cases, Black students had been denied admission to higher education due to their race. In Sweat v. Painter, Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that the University of Texas School of Law’s admissions schemes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed, and the case inspired a similar decision in Oklahoma, where the University of Oklahoma attempted to block George McLaurin from attending the school’s graduate program in education. After a federal court struck down denial, the University was forced to admit McLaurin but continued forcing him to sit and eat separately from other students. The Supreme Court eventually struck down any ability for the school to segregate Black students.

These incremental wins culminated in Thurgood Marshall’s major achievement in the Brown v. Board of Education case in which he shot down the longstanding “separate but equal” doctrine, essentially ending segregation in the United States education system once and for all.

Throughout his life, Marshall oversaw hundreds of cases, sometimes all at once. He went on to win 29 Supreme Court cases, including a case that struck down the “White Primaries” of the Democratic Party in the South. During his time on the Supreme Court bench, Justice Marshall dissented in over 150 cases involving the death penalty. He also held the majority opinion in cases that supported striking union workers, held up the legality of private pornography, and forced state prisons to provide “adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law” inside their facilities.

Retirement and legacy

In a blow to liberals, Justice Marshall retired from the bench in 1991, opening the door for then President H.W. Bush to choose a successor. Pressured by Democrats to choose a Black successor and pressured by Republicans to choose someone conservative, Bush eventually chose 43-year-old Clarence Thomas as the next Supreme Court justice.

Thurgood Marshall Clarence Thomas supreme court brown v board of education

Left: U.S. Late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Right: Current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Unlike Marshall, Thomas has become known for his ultra-conservative views. More recently, he faced backlash after his wife allegedly voiced support for rioters attempting to stop the legal counting of votes for President Joe Biden during the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

While Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t shown the same fervor for defending civil rights like his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall’s legacy has gone far beyond his own life.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund continues to support aspiring students across the country, and his life mission has been continued by notable civil rights attorneys like Lee Merritt, Benjamin Crump, and Damario Solomon-Simmons, who specialize in cases involving police brutality and racism.

Before his funeral, Thurgood Marshall’s casket was laid in state in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, becoming only the second justice to hold such an honor.

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