Icons in Black History - Thurgood Marshall

Caleb Green

The story of Thurgood Marshall is common to many and even more common to those within the legal community. Marshall is a pillar in the history of the civil right movement and within black history. Mr. Thurgood Marshall is most notable for becoming the first African-American to take a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. However, that is only a portion of his legacy as Marshall made his impact on history long before he began his 24-year service on the Supreme Court.

Long before he ascended to the Supreme Court, Thurgood made his mark in history as a civil rights attorney. Thurgood Marshall graduated at the top of his class and under the tutelage of Charles Houston—the Dean of Howard Law School­—Marshall discovered his gift to use his legal expertise to combat racial discrimination and widespread segregation.

In fact, his first order of duty as a newly minted attorney was suing the Maryland University Law School. Prior to attending Howard Law School, Marshall applied to attend the Maryland University Law School, a racially segregated school. Despite being overqualified, Maryland University Law School denied Marshall admission on the sole basis of his race. Hence, he was forced to travel several miles to attend Howard Law School in Washington, D.C. instead. After Marshall graduated from Howard Law School, Maryland University Law School remained racially segregated. Marshall, now an attorney in the Baltimore Branch of the National Association for Colored People (NAACP), defended another well-qualified candidate, Donald Murray, who had been denied entrance to the Maryland University Law School. Marshall skillfully used the “separate but equal” doctrine—the doctrine used to justify racial segregation—to his advantage in his argument. His reasoning was simple: Maryland University Law School’s racial segregation policy violated the “separate but equal” doctrine because the state of Maryland failed to offer a comparable, non-segregated law school. In 1936, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled in Marshall’s favor and Murray was admitted. This was first of a long line of cases that Marshall would continue to use to undermine racial segregation in the United States.

Marshall claimed his first victory from the United States Supreme Court in Chambers v. Florida (1940). Marshall successfully defended four African-American men who—after each were severely beaten by law enforcement—confessed to murder and were subsequently convicted. In Smith v. Allwright, Marshall gained a significant victory, persuading the United States Supreme Court to strike down the Democratic Party’s use of white-only primary elections. Marshall’s most notable civil rights victory was the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Through this case, Marshall successfully challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. In May 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled the racial underpinnings of the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Accordingly, Thurgood Marshall established himself as one of the most prominent and successful attorneys in America. His legacy not only shattered racial segregation throughout the nation, but also set an example for future generations of attorneys. Marshall’s story has persuaded countless African-Americans, including me, to pursue a career in the law. Moreover, Marshall was instrumental because he not only helped make it possible for African-Americans to attend universities and law schools throughout the country, but set the principle example of what it takes to be successful advocate. Upon passing the bar exam, Marshall did not waste any time to put his law degree to use. He recognized his greatest task as an attorney was embracing his role as a social engineer. Marshall realized his duty—to effectuate change—was not limited by his young age or experience. Rather, he set an example, he sought mentorship, he polished his craft, and, most notably, he used his legal prowess to battle injustice. Accordingly, Thurgood Marshall serves as the standard of excellence every attorney should strive toward. In the midst of a racially divided country, Thurgood marshaled the law to the aid of his people, and even today, we still enjoy and reap the benefits of his legacy.