The late Justice Thurgood Marshall’s name has been in the news this week because Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, was one of his law clerks in the 1980s and speaks about him frequently. At her confirmation hearing to become solicitor general, she remembered how Marshall loved holding that post himself.
Coincidentally, Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, also, came up this week during Need to Know’s reporting on a Texas school board debate over cultural influences in textbooks.
In this essay, Alison Stewart explores Marshall’s legacy, Kagan and Marshall’s enduring place in our textbooks.
Video photo credits:
Photos courtesy of Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library
Detail from Charles Hamilton Houston’s Harvard Law School Class of 1922 Portrait
S. Arakelyan (n.d.), Arlington, MA, United States, photographer
Harvard Law School Class of 1922
gelatin silver print, 25.4 x 108.2cm
Detail from Portrait of Isaac Royall, Jr.
Feke, Robert, American, 1707-1752
Isaac Royall and Family, 1741
oil on canvas, 56 3/16 x 77≤ in.
Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office
History >> Biography >> Civil Rights for Kids
- Occupation: Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice
- Born: July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland
- Died: January 24, 1993 in Bethesda, Maryland
- Best known for: Becoming the first African-American Supreme Court Justice
Where did Thurgood Marshall grow up?
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908. His father, William, worked as a steward at an all-white country club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher. His grandfather was a slave who gained his freedom by escaping from the South during the Civil War.
Going to School
Marshall was a good student in school, but often got into trouble for misbehaving. He loved to argue and became a star of the debate team. Marshall's dad enjoyed going to court and listening to law cases. This caused Marshall to want to become a lawyer, even though his parents had hoped he would follow in his older brother's footsteps and become a dentist.
Marshall attended college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While at college he enjoyed being on the debate team and joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He also fell in love with Vivien Burey and was married in 1929. After graduating from Lincoln, Marshall wanted to attend the University of Maryland. However, their law school would not admit him because he was African-American. Instead, Marshall went to law school at Howard University where he finished first in his class, graduating in 1933.
Working as a Lawyer
After graduating and passing the bar exam, Marshall opened a small law practice in Baltimore. One of his first big cases was against the University of Maryland. Marshall remembered how they would not admit him because of his race. In 1935, he heard of another student, Donald Murray, who was turned away just like Marshall was. Marshall took the University of Maryland to court and won the case. Now they would have to let African-Americans attend the school. This was just the start of Marshall's fight against segregation.
Marshall began to be known for both his skill as a lawyer and his passion for civil rights. He became the chief counsel (main lawyer) for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Over the next several years, Marshall traveled the country defending African-Americans who were often wrongly accused. He also fought against segregation and the Jim Crow laws of the South. He eventually earned the nickname "Mr. Civil Rights".
Brown v. Board of Education
Marshall's most famous case came in 1954. It was called Brown v. Board of Education. In this case Marshall argued that schools should not be segregated. At that time there were separate schools for black children and white children. It was illegal in many states for black children to attend the same schools as white children. The argument that many states used was one called "separate but equal". Marshall argued that separate schools could not be equal. In a landmark decision for the Civil Rights Movement, Marshall won the case showing that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Becoming a Judge
In 1961, Marshall was appointed as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy. He served there until 1965 when he became the United States Solicitor General. As Solicitor General he represented the federal government before the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justice
President Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall for the Supreme Court in 1966. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 30, 1967 and became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. While serving on the Supreme Court, Marshall championed the rights of the individual. He served on the court for 24 years. He retired in 1991 and was replaced by another African-American judge, Clarence Thomas.
Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure on January 24, 1993. He left a legacy of using the law and the Constitution to fight for the rights of all people. He broke down racial barriers, including achieving one of the highest positions in the government as a member of the Supreme Court.
Interesting Facts about Thurgood Marshall
- Marshall had to memorize the U.S. Constitution in high school as punishment for misbehaving in class.
- His birth first name was Thoroughgood, but as a child Marshall got tired of having to write out such a long name. He shortened his name to Thurgood in the second grade.
- While working as a lawyer he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them.
- There was a one-man play about the life of Thurgood Marshall called Thurgood which appeared on Broadway starring Laurence Fishburne in 2008.
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History >> Biography >> Civil Rights for Kids
by Thomas J. O'Halloran