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Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Through Legal Action

Thurgood Marshall used his legal prowess to advance equality.

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Thurgood Marshall became another American history maker when he was appointed to the Supreme Court. As the first African American to be placed on the highest court in the land, he became an icon in the legal profession and the civil rights movement. He also participated in one of the most significant court cases in the history of the nation.

Marshall’s Early Life

Thurgood Marshall was born July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William, was the grandson of a slave who worked at a club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher.

William enjoyed going to the courthouse after work to watch various cases being tried before the court. He would return home and discuss the cases with his sons. Thurgood once said: “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don’t know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table.”


Later in his life, Marshall attended Lincoln University, which was a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. By this time, he had the entire United States Constitution memorized. While that might sound impressive, he was actually forced by a teacher to commit the document to memory as punishment for misbehaving in class.

In 1930, Marshall tried to apply to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite having the qualifications necessary to be accepted, he was rejected due to his race. Instead, he chose to attend law school at Howard University, another historically black college.

While attending law school, he was mentored by civil rights lawyer Charles Houston, who was the dean of the university. Houston was a strict educator. Marshall recalled: “He would not be satisfied until he went to a dance on campus and found all of his students sitting around the wall reading law books instead of partying.”

Early Career

Marshall graduated from law school in 1933 and tried starting his own practice. Since he did not have experience, he was not hired for many cases. However, the next year, he started working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1936, he moved to New York City to work full time for the organization.

At this point in his career, Marshall was finally able to begin working on significant civil rights cases. He won an impressive number of cases that ended up dismantling policies that were designed to discriminate against African Americans.

In Murray v. Pearson, Marshall joined Houston in defending Donald Murray, a qualified student who had been rejected by the University of Maryland Law School just as Marshall had been previously. They won the case, and the matter became the first in a long series of cases to eliminate segregation in universities.

Chambers v. Florida was a case in which Marshall defended four black men who were convicted of murder. He won the case because it turned out that police officers had forced the men to confess to a murder they did not commit.

But Marshall’s landmark case was Brown v. Board of Education, which occurred in 1954. He represented a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas in which schools were segregated. Marshall challenged the laws requiring black children to go to black schools and white children to go to white schools. It was a case designed to eliminate the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment. While it took years for the ruling to be implemented in all states, it was the beginning of desegregating one of America’s education system.

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 nominated Marshall to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. He was sworn in that year. As a justice, he presided over a series of important cases. After he retired, Clarence Thomas, another black American, replaced him.

Thurgood Marshall was an important civil rights leader in his own right. Instead of participating in marches, boycotts, and sit-ins like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he used his legal prowess to promote civil rights. His cases helped to strike down many of the racist laws that had been in effect at the time. In so doing, he helped to create the America we live in today.

Race Relations & Media Affairs Correspondent at and A self-confessed news and political junkie, Jeff’s writing has been featured in Small Business Trends, Business2Community, and The Huffington Post. Born in Southern California and having experienced the 1992 L.A. Riots up close and personal, Jeff’s insights are informed by his experiences as a black man and a conservative.

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