IA Law Review: Acclaimed Biographies: Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

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Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court, and his dedication and accomplishments in the fight for civil rights continue to make him a symbol and inspiration to all Americans. His approach to practicing law was rooted deeply in his unwavering moral compass most accurately captured by his quote: “you do what you think is right and let the law catch up”.


Justice Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland to parents descended from slaves. Ever since a young age, Marshall honed his legal mindset by debating with his father at the dinner table. Marshall furthered that talent at Frederick Douglass High School and later Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania. At Lincoln, he befriended renowned poet Langston Hughes and singer Cab Calloway. Throughout his undergraduate education, he frequently participated in civil rights protests and debate.


One of the most transformative times in Thurgood Marshall’s life came with his application to law school. Although Marshall’s goal was to study at the University of Maryland Law School, his hometown option, that school had a staunch segregation policy. Marshall was angered by this and vowed to fight this discrimination as a lawyer. For the time being, Marshall attended the farther Howard University School of Law, from which he graduated first in his class.


However, Marshall never forgot the injustice he faced when applying to law school. In 1934, he took up Murray v. Pearson, in which he represented an excellent African-American student who was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School on the sole cause of his race. Marshall, masterfully arguing Margold’s strategy that a ‘separate but equal’ doctrine was inherently unequal as Murray did not have access to an equal law school nearby. The circuit court agreed with this interpretation, and the university subsequently admitted Murray. This was Marshall’s first civil rights success and the beginning of his thirst for justice.


After winning other influential cases, including Chambers vs. Florida in front of the Supreme Court, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. As the executive director of this NAACP division, Marshall argued several consequential civil rights cases in front of the Supreme Court, most notable of which being Brown v. Board of Education which abolished the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. Marshall was an extremely successful trial lawyer, winning 29 of 32 cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court. Throughout his tenure as Chief Counsel of the NAACP, Marshall also developed a close bond with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and hoped that both their organizations could develop civil rights together.


His career in the NAACP led to notice by other government officials as well. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals. Although this appointment was delayed by efforts from angered Southern Senators, Marshall remained on the Court till 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the first African-American United States Solicitor General. His past prowess as a trial lawyer was proven successful once more when he won 14 out of 19 cases he argued for the government. Marshall’s activist history and government service culminated in 1967 when President Jonhson nominated him as a Supreme Court justice.


During his term, Marshall focused on protecting individual rights, prisoners’ rights, abolishing the death penalty, and furthering civil rights. His most notable Court ally was Justice William Brennan, who consistently sided with Marshall both against the death penalty and for abortion. Some notable Supreme Court cases with famous opinions from Marshall were Furman v. Georgia (abortion), Teamsters v. Terry (fair representation), Cottage v. Commissioner (loan crisis), and Personal Administrator v. Feeny (veterans’ rights).


Two years following his retirement from the Supreme Court, Marshall passed due to heart failure and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Still, his legacy lives on. Marshall’s entire personal paper collection was left to the Library of Congress and plays, films, paintings, and statues have been made honoring his life. Furthermore, 7 institutions and buildings have been named after him. Ironically, the University of Maryland Law School, which denied him due to his race, renamed their law library after him to honor his civil rights accomplishments.


In summary, Thurgood Marshall was an honorable jurist whose pivotal achievements in the field of civil rights have left an unmistakable legacy. His dedication to his convictions and steadfast principles have become a source of inspiration to all in law.

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