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Supreme Court Justices

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)

Thoroughgood ("Thurgood") Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908, the younger of two sons of William and Norma Marshall. His father William was a railroad porter and later steward at a whites-only country club. His mother Norma was a public school teacher for over 25 years. As a young man, Marshall was a "hellion," Carl Rowan wrote.

After high school, Marshall followed his brother, William Aubrey Marshall, to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1930. He and his wife Vivien (Buster) Marshall discussed his options, and they decided he would attend law school. Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was denied admission due to racial segregation in education in the state. Marshal then attended Howard University Law School. Marshall's mother Norma pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay his tuition.

At Howard, Marshall was mentored by the Vice-Dean (Dean in all practical respects, but due to segregation, denied the title of Dean) Charles Hamilton Houston, a distinguished graduate of the Harvard Law School. Marshall graduated from Howard in 1933, as the Great Depression reached its nadir. He opened his own law office in Baltimore that year, and the next year represented the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. Marshall found a person, Donald Murray, and arranged for him to apply to the University of Maryland Law School. When Murray's application was denied, Marshall sued on Murray's behalf. Marshall's mentor and former teacher, Houston, tried the case, with Marshall's assistance. They won the case.

In October 1936, Houston arranged to have the NAACP hire Marshall to its national staff. Marshall remained counsel to the NAACP for 25 years. Houston, Marshall and the NAACP crafted a strategy of attacking Jim Crow by focusing on what was mandated by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), "separate but equal," rather than by attacking the doctrine laid out by Plessy. The result was to demonstrate that segregated colleges and professional schools were not equal. After establishing the inequality faced by Negroes in American, the NAACP began to attack the Plessy doctrine in 1945. The culmination of this effort was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which Marshall argued to the Supreme Court. The decision in Brown overruled Plessy in the field of education, but said nothing about other aspects of segregation.

In 1961, Marshall was nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President John F. Kennedy. Initially, southern Democrats refused to hold hearings concerning the nomination. He remained on that court for four years. In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson convinced Marshall to leave the Court (and its lifetime appointment) to become Solicitor General, the chief government lawyer to the Supreme Court. Marshall remained Solicitor General until 1967. In October 1966, LBJ made Ramsey Clark, a 39-year old then-deputy attorney general, his acting Attorney General. In early 1967, Ramsey Clark was formally appointed attorney general, with the consent of the Senate. Ramsey Clark's father, Tom Clark, was then a Supreme Court Justice. As LBJ expected, Tom Clark resigned from the Supreme Court to avoid a conflict of interest, now that his son was the chief law enforcement officer of the executive branch. This created an opening in the Court, which LBJ greatly desired. LBJ wanted to "desegregate" the Court, and nominated Marshall, the first African-American (Marshall preferred the term "Negro") to sit on the Court.

Thurgood Marshall was a member of the Court until retiring in 1991, serving on the Court for 25 Terms. He began when the Warren Court was at its peak, and gradually  his opinions were more often dissenting than majority opinions. Marshall was a New Deal liberal who believed strongly in the broad exercise of national power. He was a vociferous proponent for claims of equality. He and William Brennan were categorically opposed to the death penalty, and both favored claims of noneconomic substantive due process.  

Marshall married to Vivien (Buster) Burey in 1929. She died of lung cancer on February 11, 1955. He married Cecilia (Cissy) Suyat on December 17, 1955. They had two sons, Thurgood Jr. ("Goody") and John. Marshall died on January 24, 1993.

Further reading: Carl T. Rowan, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Thurgood Marshall (1993); Roger Goldman with David Gallen, Thurgood Marshall: Justice for All (1992); Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (1998); Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 (1994); Mark V. Tushnet, Making Constitutional Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1961-1991 (1997).