July 2 marks the birthday of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as an associate justice on the court in 1967. As a justice, Marshall wrote a number of important decisions on freedom of expression and on equal protection. Building on the groundwork he had laid as a lawyer challenging segregation, Justice Marshall urged the court to safeguard the rights of minorities and the poor.
Marshall was born in Baltimore on July 2, 1908. His given name was Thoroughgood, but even as a young boy, he showed little deference to established precedent. “By the time I was in second grade,” he said, “I got tired of spelling all that and shortened it.” From then on, Marshall went by the name “Thurgood.” As a schoolboy, the energetic Thurgood sometimes acted out in class. As a punishment, he was once assigned to read the U.S. Constitution. In time, he memorized much of the document, its Bill of Rights in particular. He became a standout member of his high school debate team. Marshall attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, graduating with honors in 1930. He then attended Howard University Law School, one of few law schools at the time open to African American students. He had been unable to attend the segregated University of Maryland Law School. In 1933, Marshall graduated first in his law school class.
After graduation, Marshall opened a private law practice in Baltimore. Early in his practice, Marshall and a partner sued the University of Maryland on behalf of a black student named Donald Murray. In court, the young lawyer argued that Murray should be admitted because Maryland did not maintain a “separate but equal” law school for African Americans to attend. An 1896 Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson had established the “separate but equal” principle. This principle later was used to uphold other kinds of segregation in the United States. Marshall won the case, and Murray became the first African American admitted to the law school.
Marshall became active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was the NAACP’s chief legal officer from 1938 to 1950. He coordinated the organization’s lawsuits challenging segregation in housing and education. He was the lead strategist of the series of cases that ended with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In a unanimous decision, the court agreed with Marshall. It declared that separate educational facilities could never be equal.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York in 1961. In 1965, President Johnson named him solicitor general of the United States. From 1967 until his retirement in 1991, Marshall served with distinction as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. He died on Jan. 24, 1993. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.