Landmark Case Biography: Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993)

Thurgood Marshall

Library of Congress, LC-USZC6-26

Thurgood Marshall was the great-grandson of a slave and the son of a dining car waiter and a schoolteacher. He was the first African American justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He studied law at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. under Charles Hamilton Houston, who has been credited with transforming Howard into a laboratory for civil rights litigation.

Marshall graduated first in his class from Howard in 1933, and he was drafted by Houston to help with the civil rights battles then being waged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He first served as special counsel for the NAACP and then as the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He was the mastermind behind the litigation strategy that challenged racial oppression in education, housing, transportation, electoral politics, and criminal justice. In one of his most famous cases and victories, he represented Linda Brown in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case.

In 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to be associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He served in this position until 1991. During his tenure, Marshall was a strong advocate for equal protection of the law. He was an ardent supporter of affirmative action and probably influenced court decisions that upheld the use of affirmative action in some cases. Marshall believed that the Constitution was inherently defective in its acceptance of slavery and gave much credit to those who "refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of 'liberty,' 'justice,' and 'equality,' and who worked to better them. The true miracle of the Constitution was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life."