Thurgood Marshall and His Life

Supreme Court Red and Black Ink, LLC

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When Thurgood Marshall was a boy, he heard another child call a Jewish boy a derogatory name.  Thurgoood went up to the boy and asked him why he didn’t fight when that other boy called him that name.  The boy then asked Thurgood, “Well, would you fight if someone called you a nigger?”

Thurgood had never thought about it before (he was only seven years old), so he went home to ask his father.  He wanted to know what the word meant and what he should do about it if anyone ever called him “nigger”.

His father told him all about it—as best as he could given that Thurgood was about seven years old.  

Then, Thurgood asked him, “Should I fight someone if they call me a nigger?”

His father said, “If anyone ever calls you a nigger, you not only have my permission to fight, you have my orders to fight him.”

Some years later, when he was in high school, Thurgood Marshall was working as a delivery person for a local clothing store, after school.  One day while he was delivering hats for the store, Marshall was waiting for a trolley in Baltimore.  When the trolley came, he picked up the boxes he had (he had so many boxes that he could barely see around them).  He stepped onto the trolley when a hand grabbed him from behind, around his collar.  He was pulled back off of the trolley and a man was staring at him who said, essentially, “Don’t you ever step in front of a white woman like that!”  

Thurgood did not even see the woman, but he replied that he was only trying to get on the trolley.

Then the man called Thurgood a “nigger” and that was it.

Remembering his fathers advice, Thurgood Marshall dropped the boxes he was carrying and started swinging.  The two fought and wrestled until a police officer showed up and arrested them.

His Life

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2nd in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908. His father was a porter or waiter for a railroad company and his mother was an elementary school teacher. They were very involved in teaching their children and, reportedly, Thurgood’s father would take him down to the courthouse in Baltimore just to view court proceedings.  His mother, being a schoolteacher, oversaw her children's development and made sure they got good educational foundations in school. 

Baltimore, Maryland

When Thurgood was in high school, he would often “cut up” and for punishment the school’s principal made him (and any other child who got in trouble) read the Constitution. 

When he got old enough, he went to college. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. (Note: Thurgood Marshall attended Lincoln University when Langston Hughes was there—Langston Hughes graduated in 1929 and Marshall graduated in 1930). 

Thurgood Marshall graduated from Lincoln University, with honors, and he hoped to attend the University of Maryland’s School of Law. The school did not accept black students and Thurgood made the choice to go to Howard University instead. This choice would prove to be a life-changing decision. 

At Howard University he met Charles Hamilton Houston who was the dean of the school and a man who was determined to get enough cases through the judicial system to overthrow the “separate but equal” doctrine that persisted in the nation’s school systems (and in other areas of society). Charles Houston took Marshall under his wing as one of his most outstanding students and became his mentor. 

The two, along with many others, worked on studying the Constitution and devised an approach to challenge segregation via the courts. 

They believed that separate facilities were not equal and they would set out on a journey across the South to prove it. When Thurgood Marshall graduated from Howard (he graduated at the top of his class), he opened up a law firm in Baltimore. 

He and Charles Houston won a major case in the fight against segregation in 1936. In the Murray v. Pearson case Donald Murray was an African-American man who sought admission into the University of Maryland School of Law. 

He was denied admission because of his race. In fact, no African-American student had been admitted to Maryland’s law school since an 1890 student-led protest was launched against their being admitted. The judge ruled in Donald Murray’s favor and Marshall and Houston had their first major win. Thurgood Marshall later became the Director-Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

He began to tirelessly fight against segregation and used the strategies taught to him by Houston to coordinate hundreds of cases to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine. It would be 21 years, from the time of Marshall's graduation from Howard University to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. During that time Marshall travelled extensively throughout the country building cases against segregation. 

In his lifetime, he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them. He was the lead attorney, as you know, in the Brown v. Board of Education case which ended segregation in public schools and opened the way for the "separate but equal" doctrine to be challenged in other ways. 

Note: Charles Hamilton Houston never got to see the end results of his fight against segregation because he died on April 22, 1950. The decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case was handed down on May 17, 1954. 

Thurgood Marshall, however, continued to fight for equal rights through the courts. In 1961, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit. There he issued over 100 rulings, which were all later upheld by the Supreme Court. 

In 1965 he was appointed U.S. Solicitor General and won 74% of the cases he argued for the government. 

He was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1967 and served in that position for 24 years, until his retirement on October 1, 1991.

Thurgood Marshall is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial to soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial to soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Thurgood Marshall
July 2, 1908 - January 24, 1993

 

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Copyright Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.

References:

Aldred, Lisa.  Thurgood Marshall: Supreme Court Justice(Chelsea House Publishers: Philadelphia, 2005).

Architect of the Capitol. Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building. Accessed July 2016. http://www.aoc.gov/capitol- buildings/thurgood-marshall-federal-judiciary-building 

Friedman, Michael Jay, Neely, Mildred and Dudziak, Mary. U.S. Department of State. Bureau of International Information Programs. Justice for All: The Legacy of Thurgood Marshall. Accessed July 2016. http://photos.state.gov/libraries/amgov/ 30145/publications-english/thurgood_marshall.pdf 

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, History: Thurgood Marshall. Accessed July 2016. http:// www.naacpldf.org/thurgood-marshall 

Supreme Court of the United States. Members of the Supreme Court of the United States. Members in the Timeline. Accessed July 2016. http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/ members.aspx 

University of Maryland School of Law. Thurgood Marshall Law Library. Donald Gaines Murray and the Integration of the University of Maryland School of Law. Accessed July 2016.

Danita Smith