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I INTRODUCTION  Marshall, Thurgood (1908-1993), first black justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, director of the legal defense fund for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a lawyer whose victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed segregation in American public education.



When Thurgood Marshall died in 1993, he was only the second justice to lie in state in the Supreme Court's chambers—Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had written the opinion in Marshall's most celebrated case, Brown v. Board of Education, was the other. This honor capped the outpouring of praise for the Court's first black justice, a man who, said one of his former law clerks, "would have had a place in American history before his appointment" to the Court.


Indeed, Marshall's tenure as chief counsel for the NAACP and first director of its Legal Defense and Educational Fund made him one of America's most influential and well-known lawyers. His 30 years of public service—first as a federal appeals court judge, then as America's first black solicitor general, and finally as the first black Supreme Court justice—came after he had already helped millions of African Americans exercise long-denied constitutional rights.

II EDUCATION  
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall once said his father told him, "If anyone calls you nigger, you not only have my permission to fight him, you got my orders." Both of Marshall's parents—William, who worked as a dining steward at an all-white private club, and Norma, a grade school teacher—instilled in their son racial pride and self-confidence. As a child, Marshall later recalled, he was a "hell-raiser," whose high school teacher punished him by sending him to the school's basement to read and copy passages from the Constitution of the United States. It was valuable training for the future lawyer, who claimed that by the time he graduated he could recite nearly the entire document by heart. From Baltimore's Douglass High School, Marshall entered Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, where he won respect as a debater and graduated with honors in 1930.


Denied admission to the University of Maryland's all-white law school—an institution whose segregation he later challenged and defeated in Murray v. Maryland (1936)—Marshall entered the law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, he met Charles H. Houston, the school's vice dean, who became the NAACP's first chief counsel and the first black man to win a case before the Supreme Court. Shortly after graduating magna cum laude in 1933, Marshall went to work for Houston at the NAACP, replacing him as chief counsel in 1938.

III THE NAACP AND THE COURTS  
From Houston, Marshall absorbed the lesson that lawyers could be "social engineers." Since its inception in 1909, the NAACP had challenged racial inequality, winning many local cases involving inadequate segregated schools. But Marshall was an architect of a new strategy that increasingly attacked segregation itself. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case involving segregated public railroads in Louisiana, had decreed segregation to be constitutional as long as facilities for both races were equal. In a series of cases concerning graduate education, Marshall and the NAACP began asking whether separate could ever be equal. Each victory—in Murray and other similar cases such as Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950)—brought the Supreme Court closer to toppling Plessy's "separate but equal" formula.


The case that finally ended legal segregation in American public education was Brown v. Board of Education. Drawing on psychological and sociological evidence, Marshall argued that the mere fact of racial separation, even without gross inequality, irrevocably harmed African American children. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed. In Brown and its companion decision, Brown II (1955), the Court outlawed state-imposed segregation and set guidelines for eradicating it, a process that was neither quick, nor easy, nor complete. But despite often violent resistance to desegregation, the constitutional impact of Marshall's victory in Brown was enormous and lasting.

IV JUDGE AND JUSTICE  Thurgood Marshall brought 32 cases before the Supreme Court; he won 29 of them. He had an even more impressive record as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals, a position to which President John F. Kennedy appointed him in 1961. Of the 112 opinions he wrote for that court, not one was overturned on appeal. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall solicitor general of the United States—in essence, the nation's chief counsel. Two years later Johnson nominated Marshall to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Thomas C. Clark. Although he was the first African American to serve as solicitor general or a Supreme Court justice, Marshall said he hesitated to take on the roles, not wanting to abandon his friends in the Civil Rights Movement. But, he said, "when one has the opportunity to serve the government, he should think twice before passing it up."

On the Supreme Court, Marshall wrote important majority opinions in Bounds v. Smith (1977), which defended prisoners' rights to legal assistance and libraries, and Stanley v. Georgia (1969), which protected the rights of individuals to possess pornography. His opinion in Stanley illustrates the common sense and clarity for which Marshall was famous: "If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch." Known as the "great dissenter," he stood firmly for the rights of poor people and minorities and against the death penalty even as the Court grew more conservative in the 1980s. Marshall continued to fight for educational equality, writing a 63-page dissent in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, a 1973 case in which the majority decided that unequal funding of urban and suburban school districts, based upon their disparate tax bases, was constitutional. Marshall disagreed, asserting "the right of every American to an equal start in life."


Gruff and sometimes intimidating from the bench, Marshall was known in private life as a warm man and a brilliant storyteller. When he announced his retirement in 1991 even his most conservative colleagues expressed their respect and affection for the 83-year-old justice. After Marshall's death, Paul Gewirtz, his former law clerk and a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in remembrance that Marshall, growing up among discrimination, segregation, and racist violence, "had the capacity to imagine a radically different world ... the strength to sustain that image in the mind's eye and the heart's longing, and the courage and ability to make that imagined world real." Marshall himself, when asked how he wished to be remembered, was characteristically plainspoken, saying, "He did the best he could with what he had."

 

 

Contributed By:
Kate Tuttle