#InContext: Thurgood Marshall

by | Oct 24, 2018

In the 1930s, African Americans in Texas were not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary. Local officials continued to turn away black voters, even after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1927. Finally, after decades of voter suppression, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund decided to intervene. “There is only way to handle that bunch,” he wrote to a black newspaper editor in 1940, “and that is to take them into court. This we must do.”

Marshall was considered by many to be the “general” of the Civil Rights Movement. As the NAACP’s top attorney from 1938 to 1961, he argued 32 civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning 29 – among them Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated Texas’s white primary. Other landmark victories included Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which outlawed racially restrictive real-estate covenants; Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which integrated the University of Texas’s law school; and, of course, Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, to William Canfield Marshall and Norma Williams Marshall, a railroad porter and a steward at an all-white country club. As a child growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall witnessed segregation firsthand. He graduated in 1930 with honors from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. After being rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because he was not white, Marshall attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., where he graduated first in his class in 1933. During his time at Howard, he studied under Charles Hamilton Houston, who encouraged Marshall and other law students to view the law as a vehicle for social change.

After his graduation from law school, Marshall returned to his hometown of Baltimore to practice law. Among his first legal victories was Murray v. Pearson (1935), in which Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying an African American applicant admission to its law school simply on the basis of race. In 1936, Marshall became a staff lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1938, he became the lead chair in the legal office of the NAACP and two years later, he was named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Marshall continued to distinguish himself as one of the country’s top lawyers, winning 29 out of the 32 cases that he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1940s and 50s. His victory before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, however, was what brought him notoriety and established his reputation as a formidable opponent and advocate of radical social change. Constitutional law students continue to study the oral arguments of the case and the ultimate decision from both a legal and political perspective. Legally, Marshall argued that segregation in public education produced unequal schools for African Americans and whites, but it was his reliance on psychological, sociological, and historical data that opened the court’s eyes to the negative effects of institutionalized segregation of African American children.

In September 1961, Marshall was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President John F. Kennedy, but opposition from Southern senators delayed his confirmation by several months. President Lyndon B. Johnson named Marshall U.S. solicitor general in July 1965 and nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court on June 3, 1967; Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 30, 1967.

On May 21, 1978, Marshall delivered the commencement address for the Class of 1978 at the University of Virginia’s Finals Ceremonies. Not only was he delivering the speech, he was also watching his son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences. As a member of a team of NAACP lawyers, Marshall himself was instrumental in leading the effort to desegregate UVA Law School in 1949.Many year later, in his commencement speech, Marshall discussed how he used the law to fight for equality and urged the graduating class to “undertake the projects of his age.” He wrapped up his speech with these words:

“Do not wait for others to move out — move out yourself — where you see wrong or inequality or injustice speak out, because this is your country.”

Justice Marshall, who died on January 24, 1993, spent much of his time and energy using the Constitution to remedy the nation’s history of racial inequality. He worked tirelessly to ensure the freedom of every individual, rather than just a few. His dissents, arguments, speeches, and writings have continued to embolden advocates across the political spectrum and from around the world to engage in meaningful, positive change toward a fairer, more equitable society.

In the same way, we intend to decimate human trafficking with the utmost tenacity. But we can’t win this fight alone. When we see something wrong, we need to speak out. With just a few words, people can join in the fight to end modern slavery once and for all.

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