How Thurgood Marshall became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice

As a civil rights attorney, he won a landmark case to end segregation in public schools—then fought to uphold those gains through dissent on a changing Court.

Decades before Thurgood Marshall was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court on October 2, 1967, the man who would become its first Black justice had already transformed American law. Known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” Marshall was one of the architects of the civil rights movement—a passionately progressive attorney who helped end school segregation.

During his barrier-breaking years on the Supreme Court, Marshall continued to advocate for civil and human rights. Yet Marshall’s tenure is perhaps best remembered for his stirring dissent against his increasingly conservative colleagues’ dismantling from the mid-1970s through the 1980s of the equal-protection laws he had championed.

Early life and career

Born in Baltimore in 1908, Marshall was the son of a teacher and a railroad porter. His parents had named him Thoroughgood after his paternal grandfather, who was born into slavery and gained his freedom by escaping from the South, but Marshall shortened the name in grade school because he disliked its length.

Marshall grew up during the so-called Jim Crow era, the century from the end of the Civil War until 1968 when state laws enshrined—and the Supreme Court upheld—racial discrimination and segregation in nearly every walk of life. Marshall attended a segregated high school in Baltimore and Lincoln University, a historically Black university near Oxford, Pennsylvania. His first-choice law school, the University of Maryland School of Law, did not admit Black students, so he attended Howard University School of Law, another historically Black university, in Washington, D.C., graduating first in his class in 1933. (Jim Crow laws created 'slavery by another name.')

At Howard, Marshall was mentored by the law school’s then vice-dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, a prominent Black attorney and founding member of the National Bar Association who encouraged Marshall to use the law as a tool to create an equal society. In 1934, Houston joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its first special counsel with a mission: To help end educational discrimination in the United States. He recruited Marshall, then a young attorney, to undertake the first test case under the strategy.

The case involved Donald Murray, who had applied to and been rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because of his race. In Murray v. Pearson, Marshall attacked the longstanding doctrine established in the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which allowed states to exclude people from public facilities because of their race, provided they had access to a “separate but equal” facility. Since there was no comparable law school for Black students in Maryland, Marshall argued, the all-white school must integrate. Marshall won and Maryland was forced to integrate the law school. But the case was not taken to the Supreme Court, so it set a precedent in Maryland only. (This civil rights leader volunteered to challenge segregation in higher education.)

Brown v. Board of Education

In 1936 Marshall went to work for the NAACP full-time. The organization’s legal goal, developed by Houston and his growing team of civil rights lawyers, was to undermine segregation by making it onerous and unaffordable for states. State graduate and professional schools were the starting point as it was easier to demonstrate there were no comparable alternatives for Black students to receive the specialized education they offered. Rulings like Murray v. Pearson forced states to admit Black students to white institutions rather than take on the cost of creating comparable, Black-only facilities. Marshall and his colleagues planned to use the precedents to strike at segregation in a much more controversial arena: public elementary and high schools. Eventually, they hoped, segregation of all types would crumble under its own impracticability.

Over the years, Marshall became the face of civil rights litigation. He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them, and participated in hundreds of other cases in lower courts nationwide. In the process, he traveled between 50,000 and 75,000 miles a year, crisscrossing the nation to oversee as many as 450 cases at a time.

In the early 1950s, Marshall served as lead attorney in what turned out to be the most momentous civil rights lawsuit of the era, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The landmark case combined five NAACP-sponsored complaints from across the country, all filed by parents of Black children who had been forced to attend segregated schools. Marshall had been chipping away at the legal basis of segregation in secondary education for years. Now, he was able to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine by attempting to dismantle segregation in public schools across the country.

To uphold school segregation would be tantamount to keeping Black people in near-slavery, Marshall said in oral arguments. “This Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.”

In May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the 14th Amendment, which provides all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law, prohibits segregating public schools by race, because segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” Though states dragged their feet to implement the ruling, it set a national precedent and helped spark the civil rights movement.

The first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice

Though Marshall continued to litigate civil rights cases, he was exhausted by the vehemence of states’ resistance to integration. Marshall and his colleagues fought battle after battle as states defied the new law of the land—closing entire public school systems, creating charter schools, and even rioting rather than allow Black students to attend alongside white ones. In 1961, he got the chance for a change when President John F. Kennedy, eager to align his new Democratic administration with the nation’s star civil rights attorney, nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Marshall faced harsh opposition from Southern senators furious about his legal activism for civil rights. At one hearing, South Carolina Senator Olin Johnston argued that Marshall was unqualified to preside over the general business of a courtroom because of his focus on civil rights.

Kennedy managed to name Marshall to the position through a recess appointment, which the Senate confirmed the following year. Then, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Marshall the first Black solicitor general, designated to represent the federal government in Supreme Court cases.

Though Marshall regularly appeared before the Supreme Court, no Black man, and no person of color, had ever been nominated to serve as a justice. Johnson was eager to change that—and cement his civil rights legacy after having signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. On June 13, 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling the move “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.” The Senate confirmed Marshall two months later on August 30, 1967, and he took his seat when the Court session opened October 2. (Why the Supreme Court has only nine justices.)

Over the years, Marshall continued to champion the equal protections he had insisted on as a civil rights lawyer, supporting individual rights and affirmative action. Among the most important majority opinions he authored were Stanley v. Georgia in 1969, a First Amendment case that decriminalized possessing pornographic materials, and Bounds v. Smith in 1977, which ruled that state prisons should provide law libraries or legal assistance to prisoners. He also supported women’s reproductive rights in the landmark 1973 case, Roe v. Wade.

Marshall ardently opposed capital punishment, helping strike down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. But an increasingly conservative Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, a decision Marshall fought for the remainder of his time on the Supreme Court.

Fighting injustice through dissent

Although Marshall joined the Supreme Court as part of a liberal majority under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court had changed by the time he had gained the seniority to write significant opinions. Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all appointed justices with conservative legal views, and Marshall became known for his eloquent dissents, which criticized his colleagues’ failures to fully address racial and other injustices and pointed out the real-world ramifications of their opinions.

During his 24-year tenure on the Supreme Court, Marshall participated in more than 3,600 cases; he dissented in more than one in four—including more than 150 dissents to the court’s refusal to hear death penalty appeals.

“What marked those dissents was a candor that cut through legal abstractions to the social reality and human suffering underneath,” wrote legal scholar Kathleen M. Sullivan.

In his dissent to Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a 1978 case in which the Court ruled against the university’s use of affirmative action racial quotas in its admissions process, Marshall included a litany of statistics on the social and health disparities faced by Black Americans.

Bringing Black people into mainstream American life “should be a state interest of the highest order,” Marshall wrote. “To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society.”

In 1991, Marshall retired just hours after delivering a dissent in a death penalty case. His surprise departure, rather than staying on for a lifetime appointment, was seen by many as evidence of his frustration with the institution’s increasing conservatism. George H.W. Bush replaced him with Clarence Thomas, a conservative Black justice. Marshall died in 1993 at age 84.

Today, Marshall is remembered as one of the United States’ greatest legal minds and an unwavering force for equality under the law. Marshall’s appointment also opened the door for women and other people of color to sit on the bench. Since he paved the way, there has been at least one person of color on the Supreme Court—although only three Supreme Court justices in history—Marshall, Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor—have been non-white. (Here's why filling a Supreme Court vacancy in an election year is so complicated.)

Though Marshall left an enduring mark on the legal system he helped transform, he knew it was only part of the work of ending discrimination and injustice. “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls,” he said in a 1992 speech. “But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.”

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