Thurgood Marshall

Profile Summary by Samantha Miller

Perhaps the most famous Black legal hero in American history is Thurgood Marshall, and rightfully so. In spite of deeply entrenched racism, Marshall reached the pinnacle of the legal profession, becoming the first Black United States Solicitor General and—of course—the first Black Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

While Marshall is a national figure, he occupies a special (and complicated) place in Baltimore history. He was born in Baltimore on July 2, 1908, where he spent the majority of his childhood. He attended Lincoln University, our nation’s first HBCU, where he excelled academically and was a decorated competitive debater. After college, Marshall decided to pursue a career in law. His hometown law school at the University of Maryland, however, was all-white, and Marshall was ineligible to attend because of the color of his skin. Undeterred, Marshall matriculated at the Howard University of Law and went on to graduate first in his class.

Marshall devoted his career to dismantling racist structures that permeated American life and was a leader in the Civil Right Movement. Early in his career, he represented Black law school applicant who, like him, was turned away from the University of Maryland. Marshall won the case, convincing Maryland’s highest court that the University of Maryland’s segregationist policy was unconstitutional. This early victory would foreshadow one of Marshall’s greatest triumphs, which came roughly twenty years later.

Marshall joined the NAACP in 1936 and, in 1940, founded the organization’s storied Legal Defense Fund. For over twenty years, Marshall and the NAACP challenged state-sponsored segregation in courts all over the country. His representations sometimes put him in personal danger. During one case in Florida, where Marshall represented four Black men wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, Marshall received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Marshall, however, refused to be intimidated in his pursuit of justice.

Marshall’s work with the NAACP sometimes brought him before the United States Supreme Court. Of the 32 cases he argued before the Court, he won 29 of them. Marshall’s most celebrated victory was in the seminal case Brown vs. Board of Education, the case through which the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

In 1961, Marshall became a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Several years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as the U.S. Solicitor General, the first Black person to occupy the role. Marshall was, of course, not finished with “firsts”: in 1967, Marshall because the first Black Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Marshall spent more than two decades on the Supreme Court. He was a consistent vote on liberal issues and, as the Court became more conservative, frequently wrote in dissent. Marshall died in 1993 at the age of 84, but his legacy lives on—as does his name. Baltimore’s airport is named for the pathbreaking jurist, as is the law library of the school that turned him away due to his race. The University of Maryland recently named another building after Marshall. As the school continues to celebrate this hero, it also acknowledges its complicity in the racist status quo that made Marshall’s ascent so improbable and awe-inspiring. Because of Thurgood Marshall, the law—and the country—has been forever changed for the better.