October 2, 1967
On October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1908, Marshall was the great grandson and grandson of slaves. and the son of a dining car waiter and a school teacher. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, but then applied to the University of Maryland Law School in 1930. He was denied admission, however, because he was black. That event would, in large part, be responsible for the direction his life would take.
He went on to Howard University Law School, where he would graduate first in his class. After leaving Howard, he would go to work for the NAACP; first as special counsel and then later as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In these positions, he masterminded the litigation strategy that challenged racial oppression in education, housing, transportation, electoral politics, and criminal justice. In one of Marshall’s first cases — which he argued alongside his mentor, Charles Houston, whom he studied under at Howard — he defended Donald Murray, who like himself had been denied entrance to the University of Maryland Law School because of his race. Marshall and Houston won Murray v. Pearson in 1936, and this case became the first in a long string of cases he argued designed to undermine the legal basis for racial segregation in this country.
By the time he finished his tenure working for the NAACP, he had won 29 Supreme Court victories, including such landmark cases as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Brown v. Board of Education case was the one that decided that the doctrine of separate but equal was inherently unequal and unconstitutional.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated him to be circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A lengthy, hostile battle — waged mostly by Southern Senators — delayed, but didn’t block, his confirmation. During his four years on the Appeals Court bench, he wrote many opinions, including one applying the concept of double jeopardy to the states.
Serving on the U. S. Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991, he made his mark with both powerful majority opinions and dissenting opinions. Marshall wrote noteworthy opinions in first Amendment cases, equal protection cases, and affirmative action cases. In the area of criminal justice cases, he wrote the majority opinion in Benton v. Maryland in 1969, a case in which the court agreed that double jeopardy applied to the states, and he was very vocal about his opposition to capital punishment.
Writing an opinion about a death penalty case, Marshall said: “There is but one conclusion that can be drawn from all of this – i. e., the death penalty is an excessive and unnecessary punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment. The statistical evidence is not convincing beyond all doubt, but it is persuasive. It is not improper at this point to take judicial notice of the fact that for more than 200 years men have labored to demonstrate that capital punishment serves no purpose that life imprisonment could not serve equally well. And they have done so with great success. Little, if any, evidence has been adduced to prove the contrary.”
Thurgood Marshall died on January 24, 1993, but his legacy and his accomplishments live on. He won more cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court than any other person; he was the first African-American Solicitor General of the U.S.; he was the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. And with all of that, he left behind an enduring legacy of speaking for the voiceless and challenging injustice wherever he found it.