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Thurgood Marshall: Fighting for Civil Rights

Problem

In 1951, Oliver Brown tried to enroll his seven-year-old daughter Linda in the closest elementary school to their Topeka, Kansas home. He was unsuccessful. Why? That elementary school was for white children only, and Linda was Black. More than fifty years prior, in 1896, the Supreme Court had established the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that public facilities such as schools could be segregated as long as the facilities for each race were equal. Now, Brown, along with twelve other Black families, sought to challenge this doctrine. 

Solution

The families filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the Black schools were not equal to the white schools and that school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment under the law. Their case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, reached the Supreme Court in 1954. The families were represented by one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers of the time: Thurgood Marshall. 

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, the first African American Supreme Court justice, and one of the most prominent figures of the American civil rights movement. Marshall was a tireless advocate for individual and civil rights. Throughout his career, he used the courts to fight for racial equality and an end to legalized segregation. 

The History

Marshall was exposed to both legal work and legalized segregation from a young age. When he was a child, his father brought him and his brothers to the local courthouse and encouraged them to dissect and discuss the lawyers’ arguments. Years later, after graduating from Lincoln University with honors, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland’ School of Law. Though he was overqualified academically, he was rejected due to his race. Marshall attended the historically black school Howard University instead, where he met his mentor Charles Houston. Houston was the dean of Howard and an emphatic proponent of using the law to enact social change. 

Marshall graduated Howard as valedictorian in 1933. He moved back to Baltimore to start his own practice, but soon began working for the NAACP, the civil rights organization dedicated to fighting for racial equality. Throughout his time with the NAACP, Marshall argued and won several cases that helped advance the civil rights movement. In the 1940 case Chambers v. Florida, he defended four Black men who had been convicted of murder using confessions coerced from them by the police. In the 1944 case Smith v. Allwright, he successfully argued that a Texas state law that permitted whites-only primary elections was unconstitutional. His 1950 case Sweatt v. Painter set the stage for the “separate but equal” doctrine to be challenged. In this case, Marshall argued on behalf of Heman Marion Sweatt, a black man who was rejected from the University of Texas School of Law because of his race. The Court ruled in favor of Sweatt even though he technically had a “separate but equal” education available to him. 

Marshall’s most famous victory was undoubtedly the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court wrote that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and mandated that schools begin the process of integration. This case overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and set the legal precedent for segregation across the country to be challenged. Marshall’s success in Brown established him as one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers. 

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the first black Solicitor General. As Solicitor General, Marshall was responsible for arguing on behalf of the federal government in front of the Supreme Court. During his tenure, Marshall won 14 out of his 19 cases. 

In 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to serve on the Supreme Court, making him the first African American to do so. During his time on the Court, Marshall built a reputation for being a strong advocate for civil rights and affirmative action. He was part of the majority opinion in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which established the right to an abortion. Marshall also fought to limit criminal punishment. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, for instance, he argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional regardless of the situation. 

So What?

Marshall retired from the Court in 1991 and died of heart failure two years later, in January 1993. His legacy, however, is still felt today. His advocacy in Brown, as well as in several other civil rights cases, paved the way for the integration of schools and other public facilities. Though the enforcement of Brown was slow and many American school districts are still highly segregated, Marshall helped set the legal foundation for desegregation of American life. He spent his life fighting for racial equality both on the bench and off, making him one of the most important and influential figures of the civil rights movement.

Think Further

  1. Why is it important for schools to be integrated? How can integration benefit all students, regardless of race?
  2. Marshall helped set a legal precedent to fight segregation. Laws alone, though, are not enough to eliminate segregation. What else needs to happen for desegregation to be successful?
  3. Do you think we have finished dismantling the doctrine of “separate but equal”? Can you think of public facilities, jobs, or other areas in which some races are disproportionately represented?

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  1. Smentkowski, Brian P. “Thurgood Marshall.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Mar. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Thurgood-Marshall.
  2. “Thurgood Marshall.” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., 20 Nov. 2019, www.naacpldf.org/about-us/history/thurgood-marshall/.
  3. “Thurgood Marshall.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/justices/thurgood_marshall.
  4. History.com Editors. “Thurgood Marshall.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/thurgood-marshall.
  5. “Thurgood Marshall.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 22 Jan. 2020, www.biography.com/activist/thurgood-marshall.