Defying the odds, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice

Mohammed Awal March 03, 2020

Thurgood Marshall rose from humble beginnings, overcame America’s flagrant racial discrimination and became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.

That was on August 30, 1967.

Before becoming Supreme Court Justice, Marshall served as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, issuing over 100 decisions, none of which was quashed or overturned by the Supreme Court.

He also served as the first black U.S. solicitor general as the attorney tasked with the responsibility of arguing on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court under Lyndon B. Johnson.

According to Biography, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.

Defying the odds, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice

Marshall had been destined from a tender age to make giant contributions to America’s justice system. According to various accounts, Marshall honed his appreciation for the Constitution through his parents and this was further strengthened by his teachers.

Marshall was forced to read the entire Constitution as punishment for misbehavior during his school days.

Born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, he graduated from Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania in 1930. Marshall would seek admission to the University of Maryland School of Law after his graduation but was turned down.

University of Maryland’s segregation policy forbade blacks from studying with whites. Marshall went to Howard University Law School which is also a historically black college, graduating magna cum laude in 1933. 

He later successfully sued the Maryland School of Law for their unfair admissions policy.

After graduating from Howard, Marshall attempted to establish his own law firm in Baltimore but he failed due to a lack of experience.

However, in 1934, Marshall began working for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), moving to New York City in 1936 to work full time as legal counsel for the NAACP. 

For decades, Marshall argued and won a variety of cases to strike down many forms of legalized racism, helping to inspire the American civil rights movement.

One of the cases, Marshall argued and won was Murray v. Pearson.

Arguing the case alongside his mentor Charles Houston, he defended another well-qualified undergraduate, Donald Murray, who, like himself, had been denied entrance to the University of Maryland Law School, according to Biography.  

Marshall and Houston won Murray v. Pearson in January 1936, the “first in a long string of cases designed to undermine the legal basis for de jure racial segregation in the United States,” writes Biography.

When Justice Tom Clark retired in 1967, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed his appointment with a 69-11 vote.

As a Supreme Court justice, Marshall “consistently supported rulings upholding strong protection of individual rights and liberal interpretations of controversial social issues.”

He was part of the majority that ruled in favor of the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, among several other cases. 

Marshall spent 24 years on the Supreme Court, retiring in 1991.

Married to Vivian “Buster” Burey in 1929, Marshall died on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 3, 2020


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