Black History: Special Delivery!!
Many are aware that Thurgood Marshall (1908 – 1993) made history when he was appointed as the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall was an accomplished litigator and civil rights trailblazer even before his appointment to the Supreme Court. Out of 32 cases litigated before the Supreme Court, he won 29! His wins include several landmark decisions including, Brown v. Board of Education which resulted in the desegregation of public schools and Smith vs. Allwright which won a key victory in eliminating voting rights discrimination for African-Americans. Marshall was also a vocal advocate against police brutality and women’s rights. He was also against the death penalty.
Marshall was named “Thoroughgood” at birth. He shortened his name to “Thurgood” in the second grade to make it easier for himself to write out. Marshall graduated as one of the top 3 students in his class at Frederick Douglass High School in Maryland. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland but did not apply knowing he would be refused admission due to his race. He then enrolled in Lincoln University, a historically black college (HBCU) and graduated in 1930. While at Lincoln, he was suspended for hazing and pranking students. His initial plan was to pursue a degree in dentistry. Marshall married, Vivien Burey while at Lincoln. He would go on to graduate from Lincoln with honors, earning a degree in literature and philosophy. He then attended Howard University’s law school and graduated in 1933 as the class valedictorian.
Marshall developed his interest in law practice because his father would take him to observe court proceedings. They would then engage in a detailed discussion regarding the cases. His father would relentlessly challenge Marshall on his views on cases. Marshall credits his father with his eventual pursuit of law as a profession. Marshall’s mother initially did not want him to go into law as a career. She feared that as a black attorney he would not be able to make a living which is why she encouraged him to go into dentistry instead. She later came around and pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay his law school entrance fees.
In 1933, Marshall successfully litigated a case that struck down pay discrimination against Black Educators in Maryland. He would go on to litigate pay equity for Black educators in 10 other Southern states. Due to the low wages he received as a young lawyer, Marshall worked nights at a clinic in Baltimore during some of his biggest legal cases. When he relocated to New York, he did not quit, instead, he requested a 6-month leave of absence. However, he never returned to his night job. By 1940 he had assumed the role of Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall’s work as a litigator was extremely dangerous. In 1946 after litigating a trial in Tennessee Marshall and his litigation team were stopped by local police as they headed to Nashville. Marshall was arrested on trumped-up charges of drunk driving. He was placed in a police car and his litigation team was told to continue their trip; instead, they followed the unmarked police cruiser. Marshall credits them for saving his life. The police were taking Marshal to a secluded, area for what would have been an ambush and lynching. Marshall later said that he was certain hewould have been lynched had they not arrived had his colleagues not arrived.
Many do not know that Marshall was an informant of the FBI. He was also investigated by the FBI. He tipped off the FBI to communists who tried to infiltrate the NAACP. FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover also ordered that his activities be monitored suspecting that he was participating in communist activities. However, the FBI was unable to find any communist affiliations.
Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court was not without controversy. President Kennedy initially had his brother Bobby meet with Marshall. Their meeting did not go well. Marshall felt that the Kennedy’s were questioning his ability and trying to tell him what to do. Despite this, President Kennedy nominated Marshall to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. His senate confirmation took one year. Several southern senators objected to his nomination. President Lyndon Johnson wanted to appoint Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967. However, there wasn’t a vacancy at the time. It is commonly held that Johnson created the vacancy by appointing the son of then-current Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, to Attorney General. This created a conflict of interest and resulted in the elder Clark retiring. President Johnson then officially nominated Marshall as Justice Clark’s replacement the day after Justice Clark announced his retirement.
Several southern senators worked to undermine his nomination. Marshall underwent a grueling examination at the hands of southern senators for four days. The senators even “quizzed” Marshall on his knowledge of political history which some felt was reminiscent of the Jim Crow literacy tests southern Black Voters were forced to complete. The Senate voted to confirm his nomination on August 30, 1967. He was sworn in as Supreme Court Justice on October 2, 1967. Reflecting on Marshall’s nomination, President Johnson said it was, “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.” As with many great leaders, Marshall’s legacy is still debated. Marshall throughout his legal tenure demonstrated unwavering support for affirmative action and never wavered from opposing the death penalty. Marshall grew increasingly more frustrated with the direction of the court in the 1980s. He retired in 1991.
Marshall was married twice. His first married Vivien “Burey” Burey in 1926. She died in February 1955. Marshall remarried to Cecilia Syuat in December 1955. They remained married until his death and had two children, Thurgood Marshall, Jr. and John W. Marshall. Syuat who is Filippino was initially concerned about them having an interracial marriage. Syuat and Marshall met while working together at the NAACP.
Marshall died of heart failure in 1993. Asked how we would like to be remembered, Marshall said, “That he (Marshall) did what he could with what he had.”
He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.