This week marks what would have been the 105th birthday of LDF founder Thurgood Marshall. He was LDF’s first President and Director-Counsel and led the organization through some of its most important seminal cases.
Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, the grandson of a slave, worked as a steward at an exclusive club. His mother, Norma, was a kindergarten teacher. He attended Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (later renamed Frederick Douglass High School), where he was a star member of the debate team. After graduating from high school in 1926, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. There, he joined a remarkably distinguished student body that included Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana; Langston Hughes, the great poet; and Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer.
After graduating from Lincoln with honors in 1930, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite being overqualified academically, Marshall was rejected because of his race. This firsthand experience with discrimination in education made a lasting impression on Marshall and helped determine the future course of his career. Instead of Maryland, Marshall attended law school in Washington, D.C. at Howard University. The dean of Howard Law School at the time was the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. Marshall fell under the tutelage of Houston, and graduated magna cum laude from Howard in 1933.
Thurgood Marshall arrived at the NAACP as part-time counsel in 1934, the year after his graduation from Howard University Law School. Later in 1936, Marshall moved to New York City to work full time as legal counsel for the NAACP. Over the following decades, Marshall argued and won a variety of cases to strike down many forms of legalized racism, helping to inspire the American Civil Rights Movement. Marshall’s first victory before the Supreme Court came in Chambers v. Florida (1940), in which he successfully defended four black men who had been convicted of murder on the basis of confessions coerced from them by police. Another crucial Supreme Court victory came in the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, in which the Court struck down the Democratic Party’s use of whites-only primary elections in various Southern states. In 1936, Marshall worked with Houston on the first of the legal challenges to segregated higher education. With Pearson v. Murray the NAACP challenged the state of Maryland’s practice of sending black law school applicants out of state because the University of Maryland law school was reserved solely for whites. The State Supreme Court ordered the University to admit Donald Murray to its law school, but because the school did not appeal to the Supreme Court, the decision did not have national repercussions. Nevertheless, the case became a template for later desegregation efforts.
Two years after Murray, Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and two legal associates, Leon Ransom and Sidney Redmond, challenged the University of Missouri’s refusal to admit a black student to its law school – despite the fact that there was no black law school in the state. Gaines v. Canada was argued before the Supreme Court and the decision mandated that the University of Missouri allow Lloyd Gaines to enter its law school. The University of Missouri quickly opened a black law school (in a building that also housed a movie theater and a hotel) but the case did not directly impact Southern states that had created separate – if vastly unequal – professional schools for their black residents.
In 1938 Marshall succeeded his mentor Charles Houston as Special Counsel to the NAACP. A year later, Marshall drew up the outline for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The LDF, as it came to be known, was created to
(a) Render legal aid gratuitously to such Negroes as may appear worthy thereof, who are suffering legal injustices by reason of race and color
(b) To seek and promote educational facilities for Negroes who are denied the same by reason of race or color.
The NAACP’s status as an organization actively involved in lobbying Congress made it ineligible for a number of philanthropic grants. The LDF was to be the exempt from these constraints.
One of the greatest achievements of Marshall’s career as a civil-rights lawyer was his victory in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas on behalf of their children forced to attend all-black segregated schools. Through Brown v. Board, one of the most important cases of the 20th century, Marshall challenged head-on the legal underpinning of racial segregation, the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and therefore racial segregation of public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While enforcement of the Court’s ruling proved to be uneven and painfully slow, Brown v. Board provided the legal foundation, and much of the inspiration, for civil rights movement that unfolded over the next decade. At the same time, the case established Marshall as one of the most successful and prominent lawyers in America.
In 1961, then-newly elected President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. Then, in 1965, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed Marshall to serve as the first black U.S. solicitor general, the attorney designated to argue on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court.
Finally, in 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to serve on the bench before which he had successfully argued so many times before—the United States Supreme Court. On October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Marshall joined a liberal Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, which aligned with Marshall’s views on politics and the Constitution. As a Supreme Court justice, Marshall consistently supported rulings upholding a strong protection of individual rights and liberal interpretations of controversial social issues. He was part of the majority that ruled in favor of the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, among several other cases. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which led to a de facto moratorium on the death penalty, Marshall articulated his opinion that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances.
Throughout Marshall’s 24-year tenure on the Court, Republican presidents appointed eight consecutive justices, and Marshall gradually became an isolated liberal member of an increasingly conservative Court. For the latter part of his time on the bench, Marshall was largely relegated to issuing strongly worded dissents, as the Court reinstated the death penalty and limited affirmative action measures and abortion rights. Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991.