By John Klingler '18
October 2, 2017, marks the 50th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court, a landmark moment in history and one that often goes forgotten today. Marshall was many things—civil rights pioneer, accomplished lawyer, progressive judicial philosopher—overcame hardship, and fought unequivocally for what he thought was right.
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, the son of a railroad porter and a teacher. On his early life, Marshall later commented, “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don't know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table.” Whatever the origins of his interest in law, by the time Marshall enrolled in Lincoln University, he had decided to pursue law as a career. Upon graduation, Marshall was rejected from University of Maryland Law School because of his race, and so he attended Howard Law School in DC. He would go on to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Howard, leaving with a passion to make the law fairer and more equitable.
After law school, Marshall began his twenty-five-year career at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Some of his first major cases dealt with law school segregation, an injustice that Marshall understood first-hand. His most famous case came in 1954, when he argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, the case that ruled segregation in the public school system violated the 14th Amendment. The case allowed millions of Americans to receive a better education, and for Marshall, the case established his reputation as a brilliant attorney and a civil rights pioneer.
In 1961, he was appointed to the US Circuit Court of Appeals; in 1965, to the position of Solicitor General; and in 1967, to the US Supreme Court. He was the first African American to be appointed to the Supreme Court. On the Court, he adopted a fiercely progressive judicial philosophy. He famously stated that a judge should “do what you think is right and let the law catch up,” a statement which continues to anger adherents to a more literalist philosophy. Toward the end of his tenure, as the court swung conservative, he remained a liberal holdout, issuing strident dissents.
Marshall retired in 1991 and passed away in 1993. Civil rights figures like King and Malcolm X are remembered today—for good reason—but Marshall is hardly mentioned outside of a legal context. But Marshall’s legacy is equally important. As one famous editorial decreed after his death, “We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall.”