Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American appointed to the United States Supreme Court and played a vital role in the civil rights history of the United States.
Thurgood Marshall was a product of Baltimore, Maryland where his family and other blacks had been at the forefront of demands for equal treatment under the law. Thurgood Marshall graduated from Lincoln University in 1933 and earned his law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1933. Marshall first came to prominence as a lawyer arguing cases for the NAACP where he proved pivotal in the group's goal of overturning racial segregation and eradicating the lingering affects of slavery. He won cases involving discrimination in housing, transportation, and voting rights to name just a few areas in which he would find success.
He first started his long association with the NAACP in 1934 in Baltimore. He won his first civil rights case in 1935 and became special counsel for the NAACP in New York in 1936. In 1944 he successfully argued the case of Smith v Allwright in the United States Supreme Court which overthrew the South's "white primary." Marshall would win 29 of 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
In 1948 Marshall won a case in which the Supreme Court declared racially restrictive covenants illegal. In 1950 he won two cases concerning graduate school integration and in 1951 he investigated charges of racism in the U.S. armed forces.
He was the attorney who argued the landmark 1954 case Brown v The Board of Education which declared public school desegregation illegal. Marshall was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. From 1961 to 1965, Marshall wrote 112 opinions none of which were overturned on appeal.
From 1965 to 1967, he served as Solicitor General of the United States under President Johnson. He won 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the U.S. government.
In 1967 he was appointed by the United States Supreme Court where he served for 24 years. He often saw affirmative action (preferences, set-asides and other race conscious policies) as a remedy for past damages to African-Americans because of the legacy of slavery and racial bias. He believed there was much to be done to bridge the gap of income inequity between blacks and whites. However, Marshall believed firmly in the role of the court as neutral arbiter. He laid out this philosophy in a 1981 speech before the American Bar Association.
"Our central function is to act as neutral arbiters of disputes that arise under the law. To this end, we bind ourselves through our own code of ethics to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or partiality. We must handle the cases that come before us without regard for what result might meet with public approval. We must decide each case in accordance with the law. We must not reach for a result that we, in our arrogance, believe will further some goal not related to the concrete case before us. And we must treat the litigants in every case in an evenhanded manner. It would be as wrong to favor the prosecution in every criminal case as it would be to favor the plaintiff in every tort suit."
One of the least written about or studied leaders of the civil rights struggle, this student of the law fought his fight within an American judicial system which would be the better for his efforts by the time he left its arena. Whether one agrees with Marshall's opinions or not his perseverance and dedication to the law has paved the way for others to fight within a system which is not always fair or just and which often does not treat equally those which stand accused before it. He died January 14, 1993.