The American judicial system – an effective instrument for social change in the middle of the 20th century – would be forever changed thanks to a humble birth in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908. William Marshall, a porter for the local railroad, and his wife Norma, a teacher, welcomed a baby boy named Thoroughgood to their family on this summer Thursday. Nearly six decades later, Thurgood – a name he created in second grade because it was easier to spell – would be approved by the United States Senate as the first African-American member of the Supreme Court and 96th overall.
Marshall’s great-grandfather had been born in the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, then kidnapped into slavery and brought to the United States, a curse that would continue on with his son. The next generation, Marshall’s father, would be able to live free, though facing heavy discrimination in segregated Maryland. Working together to drive home the value of the United States’ Constitution and the importance of law, his parents laid the foundation for a passion for civil rights that would follow him throughout a stellar legal career.
After graduating from Fredrick Douglass High School, Marshall moved to Pennsylvania to attend Lincoln University. Eager to pursue a graduate education in the law closer to his home, he reached out to the dean of the University of Maryland’s law school – and was turned away. The segregation policy, the dean said, would prevent Marshall from making the cut, forcing the young man to instead turn to the Howard University School of Law in nearby Washington, DC.
He graduated at the top of his class in 1933, then brought suit on behalf of Donald Murray against the University of Maryland School of Law two years later. Working as a member of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Marshall teamed with Charles Hamilton Houston to use the 14th Amendment to prove “separate but equal” unconstitutional for the first time in history. The ruling, once held up by the Maryland Court of Appeals, outlawed segregation at the University of Maryland. (The next year, Williams v. Zimmerman, a case Marshall argued on behalf of African-American high school students in Baltimore, would fail.)
Twenty years later, the experience arguing cases of such social magnitude would come in handy for Marshall. Standing before the Supreme Court as part of the team working for desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, he again argued the policy of “separate but equal” – a court decision which had been in effect since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 – to be in direct opposition to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The victory, one of many in front of America’s highest court, is among the farthest-reaching decisions in the nation’s history.
His record and character unimpeachable, Marshall received an appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961, at first taking the position under a recess appointment by John F. Kennedy after several southern Senators held up the decision. Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson moved him into the role of Solicitor General, determining Marshall’s skill at arguing cases could be best used on behalf of the government. (Johnson was correct – Marshall won 14 of the 19 he presented.)
Two years later, on June 13, 1967, Johnson decided Marshall belonged behind the bench as opposed to in front of it. Calling it “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place,” the President put Marshall in front of the Senate for confirmation as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, replacing Justice Tom Clark. With a 69-11 vote in favor on August 30, 1967, it was official.
Over the course of 24 years on the court, Marshall retired in 1991. In legal circles he would come to be renowned for his staunch defenses of civil rights, particularly with respect to the way criminals could be treated by the government (famously writing in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional). In early 1993, at the age of 84, Marshall passed away due to natural causes in Bethesda, Maryland.