October 2, 1967 - Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908. His great-grandfather was a slave who was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and both his great-grandfather and his grandfather were slaves. His father, William Marshall, was born free. His father was a railroad porter, and his mother Norma was a teacher.
Marshall attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. He was a B-student, but graduated a year early. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmates included poet Langston Hughes and musician Cab Calloway. He was a prankster, a star debater, and didn't take his studies seriously. He married Vivien Burey in September 1929 when he was 21, and marriage sobered him up a great deal. He plunged into his schoolwork, and graduated cum laude.
Although he wanted to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, it was segregated. So he applied to Howard University School of Law, where he graduated first in his class in 1933.
In his first year at Lincoln, Marshall had been not racial activist. But he quickly came to realize just how pernicious segregation was and how it ate away at the soul of the nation. Marshall started a private law practice in Baltimore after graduating from Howard, and began working pro bono for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1934.
Marshall's participation in the NAACP legal efforts was a MAJOR turning point. For 80 years, African Americans had worked to get the courts to recognize their rights -- and failed miserably. Segregation was the law of the land. In Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities. The 7-to-1 ruling was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown. But Brown was deeply influenced by Justice Edward Douglass White -- a Louisianan who was a member of the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary organization terrorist group suppressed black voting in that state throughout the 1870s.
How did one get around Plessy?????
Marshall argued that Supreme Court justices knew zero black people. They never saw black people, they didn't know black people, they didn't see the effects of racsim on black people, and they disbelieved all the bad things they were told about racism. Whether you liked it or not, these kinds of personal biases were incredibly influential when courts came to judging cases. Racism was irrational, and judges became irrational when discussing it.
But there were ways to strike at Plessy and at racism, Marshall said. Lawsuits had to target things that justices knew very well, something they had lots of experience with. It had to be something so incredibly, intimately familiar to the justices that their irrational racism wouldn't be able to defeat justice.
That issue, Marshall said, was segregation in law schools. Blacks were being admitted to the bar. Blacks argued before the courts. Black and white attorneys were seen as equals in court.
Convince the Suprme Court to desegrate law schools, and you could expand that to universities. And then schools. And then all public institutions. And then to everything.
The NAACP agreed to try his legal strategy. They had nothing to lose.
In 1936, Marshall became one of two attorneys arguing for desegregation of the University of Maryland School of Law in Murray v. Pearson. Marshall attacked Plessy where it lived: Murray could not get a legal education anywhere in-state equal to the one he could get at UMd. Both all-black schools were small and had notoriously poor law schools. Sending Murray out of state (which is what Maryland often did) left him ill-prepared for practicing law in Maryland.
The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with the NAACP: "Compliance with the Constitution cannot be deferred at the will of the state. Whatever system is adopted for legal education must furnish equality of treatment now."
Marshall joined the legal staff of the NAACP in 1936.
Marshall was just 32 years old when he argued and won Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940) before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, it was common police practice to hold suspects incommunicado, to hold them without formal charges or arraignment, and to deny them counsel during questioning. Forty black men had been randomly arrested in Pompano Beach, Florida, for the murder of Robert Darcy, an elderly local man. After weeks of questioning in Miami and later Ft. Lauderdale, sometimes with 10 or more police and local citizens browbeating the suspects for 18 hours a day, four men confessed to the crime. Marshall successfully argued that the confessions were coerced.
Although the Supreme Court would find no constitutional rights at risk in Chambers, it would establish them in 1960 in Miranda v. Arizona. Miranda rights ("you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney...") are now the law the land.
The same year he won Chambers, Marshall founded and became executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As the head of the Legal Defense Fund, he successfully won a number of desegregation cases before the Supreme Court:
- Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) - it is illegal for political parties to establish internal rules for all-white primaries
- Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946) - unconstitutional for states to impose segregation laws on interstate carriers
- Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948) - court enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants is unconstitutional
- Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950) - separate-but-equal law school again violates Plessy
- McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950) - separate-but-equal graduate schools violate Plessy
In total, Marshall won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to a newly-created seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A group of Senators from the South, led by Mississippi's James Eastland, held up his confirmation for five months. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to be Solicitor General of the United States. He was the first African American to hold the office. As Solicitor General, he won 14 out of the 19 cases that he argued for the government.
On June 13, 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark. Marshall was confirmed by the Senate, 69-to-11, on August 30, 1967.
Marshall served on the Suprmee Court for 24 years. He was best known for his strong support for individual rights, especially the rights of criminal suspects and his fervent belief that the death penalty was so inherently capricious as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Marshall made significant contributions to other areas of the law as well. In Teamsters v. Terry, he ruled that labor union members had broad, court-enforceable democratic rights. In TSC Industries v. Northway, a securities fraud case, he articulated a new standard for what constitutes "material evidence" that is still used today. In Cottage Savings Association v. IRS, he clarified a major banking law that allowed savings-and-loans to deduct losses on mortgages.
Among his many law clerks were Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan; Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; Judge Ralph Winter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and famous law professors Dan Kahan, Cass Sunstein, Eben Moglen, Susan Low Bloch, Rick Pildes, Paul Gewirtz, and Mark Tushnet. Law school deans Paul Mahoney of University of Virginia School of Law, Martha Minow of Harvard Law School, and Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law all clerked for him as well.
Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 due to ill health. President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace him.
In 1992, a new administrative building for the federal court system was constructed next to Union Station in Washington, D.C. The law establishing this structure dedicated it as the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building.
Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.