Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993) was an American jurist and the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Before becoming a judge, he was a lawyer who was best remembered for his high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education.
Thurgood Marshall was nominated to the court by President Lyndon Johnson in
Thurgood was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908, the great-grandson of a slave. His original name was Thoroughgood but he shortened it to Thurgood in second grade, because he disliked spelling it. His father, William Marshall, who was a railroad porter, instilled in him an appreciation for the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law. Additionally, as a child, he was punished for his school misbehavior by being forced to write copies of the Constitution, which he later said piqued his interest in the document.
Thurgood was married twice; to Vivian "Buster" Burey from 1929 until her death in February 1955 and to Cecilia Suyat from December 1955 until his own death in 1993. He had two sons from his second marriage; Thurgood Marshall, Jr., who is a former top aide to President Bill Clinton, and John W. Marshall, who is a former United States Marshals Service Director and since 2002 has served as Virginia Secretary of Public Safety under Governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
Thurgood graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore in 1926 and from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930. Afterward, Thurgood wanted to apply to his hometown law school, the University of Maryland School of Law, but the dean told him that he would not be accepted due to the school's segregation policy. Later, as a civil rights litigator, he successfully sued the school for this policy in the case of Murray v. Pearson. As he could not attend the University of Maryland, Thurgood sought admission and was accepted at Howard University. He was influenced by its new dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who instilled in his students the desire to apply the tenets of the Constitution to all Americans. Thurgood was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Black Greek-letter fraternity, established by African American students in 1906.
Thurgood received his law degree from the Howard University School of Law in 1933 where he graduated first in his class. He then set up a private practice in Baltimore. The following year, he began working with the Baltimore NAACP. He won his first major civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson, 169 Md. 478 (1936). This involved the first attempt to chip away at Plessy v. Ferguson, a plan created by his co-counsel on the case Charles Hamilton Houston. Thurgood represented Donald Gaines Murray, a black Amherst College graduate with excellent credentials who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of its separate but equal policies. This policy required black students to accept one of three options, attend: Morgan College, the Princess Anne Academy, or out-of-state black institutions. In 1935, Thurgood Marshall argued the case for Murray, showing that neither of the in-state institutions offered a law school and that such schools were entirely unequal to the University of Maryland. Thurgood and Houston expected to lose and intended to appeal to the federal courts. However, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against the state of Maryland and its Attorney General, who represented the University of Maryland, stating "Compliance with the Constitution cannot be deferred at the will of the state. Whatever system is adopted for legal education now must furnish equality of treatment now". While it was a moral victory, the ruling had no real authority outside the state of Maryland.
Thurgood won his very first U.S. Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940), at the age of 32. That same year, he was appointed Chief Counsel for the NAACP. He argued many other cases before the Supreme Court, most of them successfully, including Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944); Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948); Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950); and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950). His most famous case as a lawyer was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education was unconstitutional because it could never be truly equal. In total, Thurgood won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
During the 1950s, Thurgood Marshall developed a friendly relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1956, for example, he privately praised Hoover's campaign to discredit T.R.M. Howard, a maverick civil rights leader from Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI's failure to seriously investigate cases such as the 1955 killers of George W. Lee and Emmett Till. Ironically, two years earlier Howard had arranged for Thurgood to deliver a well-received speech at a rally of his Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mound Bayou, Mississippi only days before the Brown decision.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. A group of Democratic Party Senators led by Mississippi's James Eastland held up his confirmation, so he served for the first several months under a recess appointment. Thurgood remained on that court until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him Solicitor General.
On June 13, 1967, President Johnson appointed Thurgood to the Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, saying that this was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." Thurgood was confirmed as an Associate Justice by a Senate vote of 69-11 on August 31, 1967. He was the 96th person to hold the position, and the first African-American. President Johnson confidently predicted to one biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, that a lot of black baby boys would be named "Thurgood" in honor of this choice (in fact, Kearns's research of birth records in New York and Boston indicates that Johnson's prophecy did not come true).
Thurgood served on the Court for the next twenty-four years, compiling a liberal record that included strong support for Constitutional protection of individual rights, especially the rights of criminal suspects against the government. His most frequent ally on the Court (indeed, the pair rarely voted at odds) was Justice William Brennan, who consistently joined him in supporting abortion rights and opposing the death penalty. Brennan and Thurgood concluded in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was, in all circumstances, unconstitutional, and never accepted the legitimacy of Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled four years later that the death penalty was constitutional in some circumstances. Thereafter, Brennan or Thurgood dissented from every denial of certiorari in a capital case and from every decision upholding a sentence of death. In 1987, Thurgood gave a controversial speech on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of the Constitution of the United States. Thurgood stated, "the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today." In conclusion Thurgood stated " Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights."
Although he is best remembered for his jurisprudence in the fields of civil rights and criminal procedure, Thurgood made significant contributions to other areas of the law as well. In Teamsters v. Terry he held that the Seventh Amendment entitled the plaintiff to a jury trial in a suit against a labor union for breach of duty of fair representation. In TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc. he articulated a formulation for the standard of materiality in United States securities law that is still applied and used today. In Cottage Savings Association v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, he weighed in on the income tax consequences of the Savings and Loan crisis, permitting a savings and loan association to deduct a loss from an exchange of mortgage participation interests. In Personnel Administrator MA v. Feeney, Thurgood wrote a dissent saying that a law that gave hiring preference to veterans over non-veterans was unconstitutional because of its inequitable impact on women.
Among his many law clerks were 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; well-known law professors Dan Kahan, Cass Sunstein, Eben Moglen, Susan Low Bloch, Martha Minow, Rick Pildes, and Mark Tushnet (and editor of Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions and Reminiscences, cited hereafter); Law Schools Deans Paul Mahoney of University of Virginia School of Law, Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law, and Elena Kagan of Harvard Law School. See, List of law clerks of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Thurgood died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, at 2:58 p.m. on January 24, 1993 at the age of 84. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His second wife and their two sons survived him.
Thurgood left all of his personal papers and notes to the Library of Congress. The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, opened Marshall's papers for immediate use by scholars, journalists and the public, insisting that this was Marshall's intent. The Thurgood family and several of his close associates disputed this claim. The decision to make the documents public was supported by the American Library Association. A list of the archived manuscripts is available.
There are numerous memorials to Justice Marshall. One is near the Maryland State House. The primary office building for the federal court system, located on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., is named in honor of Justice Thurgood and contains a statue of him in the atrium. In 2000, the historic Twelfth Street YMCA Building located in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was renamed the Thurgood Marshall Center. The major airport serving Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, was renamed the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 1, 2005.
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