We are going to shine the light now on an establishment figure, the first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It was baseball legend Carlton Fisk who once remarked that it is not what you achieve that counts, but what you overcome to achieve it. In this regard, the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court marks a moment as vital to US race history as the election of Barack Obama to the White House forty years later.
Thurgood Marshall’s Civil Rights credentials were earned in the trenches, however, as legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, during which time he argued thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court, more than anyone else in history, and in twenty-nine of these representations, he prevailed.
Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908, and was educated in the city’s segregated public education system. He graduated from Lincoln University, and earned his law degree at Howard University. There he came under the influence of Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of the Law School, and a pioneer in the concept of litigation as a tool of social reform.
Between 1934 and 1961, he served as lead attorney for the NAACP, winning the moniker ‘Mr. Civil Rights’. Among his signature litigation during this period was Smith v. Allwright (1944), which invalidated the practice of the ‘white primary’ where blacks from the Democratic party were banned from any primary election in a state where that party controlled state government. Another was Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which prohibited the enforcement of racially restrictive real estate covenants by state courts, and the seminal Brown v. Board of Education, which brought an end to state-enforced racial segregation in the public school system.
From there, Thurgood Marshall began his journey through the process of political appointments, first, in 1961, to the US Court of Appeals, then the office of Solicitor General, another black first, and finally his appointment by President Lyndon B Johnson to the Supreme Court. It was, President Johnson remarked, ‘the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.’
Justice Marshall distinguished himself as an outspoken liberal in a Court dominated at the time by conservatives. In his twenty-four year tenure on the Supreme Court, he voted to uphold gender and racial affirmative action policies in every case in which they were challenged. In every case in which the Supreme Court failed to overturn a death sentence he dissented, and he opposed all efforts to limit or burden the right of women to access abortion.
Thurgood Marshall broke no laws, and challenged no conventions other than the right of a black man to serve the institutions of his nations, and use that service to promoted equality and freedom. He certainly was a doyen of the Civil Rights Movement.