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Thurgood Marshall
(1908 - 1993)


A civil rights attorney, judicial activist, and civil rights revolutionary, and the first man of color to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. Thurgood Marshall was, above all, an extraordinary activist for racial equality and justice in America. Known as a judicial activist, his career was guided by the following philosophy: "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up."

Marshall was the first man of color American to sit on the Supreme Court, and was instrumental in dismantling segregationist laws in the United States. His position in law shattered political and social barriers for people of color, giving them a more representative voice in the justice system and re-envisioning their place in the social world. He made huge contributions to civil rights and criminal procedure jurisprudence. After representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP in an early discrimination case, he continued to serve in the organization for 25 years.

Portrait of Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall, Thurgood. NAACP. 20" x 24". 2004. Collection of John Wesley Hall. Little Rock, AR.

Education and Early Career

"You do what you think is right and let the law catch up."

Marshall earned a Bachelor of Arts in the humanities cum laude from Lincoln University, but segregation policies prevented him from attending the University of Maryland School of Law in his hometown. Instead, Marshall went to the Howard University School of Law, where he met and became the protégé of the dean, the revolutionary civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Huston. Huston influenced Marshall's career tremendously, giving him the insight and tools to identify and address the nuances of systemic racism that he found manifest in many aspects of his life.

Brown v. Board of Education

Marshall is still renowned for winning the unprecedented public school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. Instigated by the NAACP, the class action lawsuit represented numerous school children of color who had been undermined by the "separate but equal" laws that divided their schools. Marshall's arguments convinced the Supreme Court to declare these laws unconstitutional, an act which is still considered to be "one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century." President John F. Kennedy subsequently appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals and Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, appointed him Solicitor General.

A Lasting Legacy

Marshall passed away at 84 but has been memorialized in material and policy. Many statues, schools, departments, and scholarships still bear his name. The continued integration of schools in the United States echoed his efforts. Marshall was an incomparable individual and figure in justice whose work and wisdom laid much of the groundwork for addressing a climate of tense racial divisions that still impacts U.S. lives to this day. 

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"The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena."

Theodore Roosevelt

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