Justice Thurgood Marshall: A lion of the law


Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908 and was the descendant of slaves on both sides of his family. He later shortened his first name to “Thurgood.” He attended public schools in Baltimore and after graduation from high school, attended and received his undergraduate degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

He applied to the University of Maryland Law School after graduating from Lincoln University but was rejected because of his race. The rejection was an indignation that had a lasting effect on his career. It was a wrong he wanted to right.

Instead of the University of Maryland, Marshall attended Howard University Law School and graduated first in his class in 1933.  He was fortunate enough to have as his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who was dean of Howard University Law School and a supremely talented African-American lawyer himself.

Houston recognized Marshall as a gifted student of the law and nurtured his talent. After graduating from law school, Marshall began a lasting working relationship with Houston and with the national NAACP.

In 1936, Marshall became the staff attorney for the NAACP. In 1940, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and became its executive director. As the executive director, Marshall argued 32 civil rights and criminal defense cases before the Supreme Court.  Of the 32 cases he argued, he won 29 of them.

It is often said that Marshall was the most fearless and gifted civil rights and criminal defense attorney of his generation, and possibly in American history.  Through unwavering belief in his talent and his comprehension of American jurisprudence, he along with his talented co-counsels and mentor created lasting social change in this country.

As author Juan Williams stated in his book, “Thurgood Marshall – American Revolutionary,” His great achievement was to expand rights for individual Americans. But he especially succeeded in creating new protections under law for America’s women, children, prisoners, homeless, minorities, and immigrants.

It was the lawyering of Marshall that brought about the end of legal segregation in America. All of the cases he argued before the Supreme Court were notable, especially Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This case established, in 1957, the judicial precedent that there can be no “separate but equal” segregation of the races in America and prohibited segregation in public schools and other public accommodations.  This alone was revolutionary in American law.

One of his most famous criminal cases was his defense of four young black men accused of rape in central Florida in 1949, whom he defended at great personal risk to his life.  His adroit and fearless defense of the re-trial is described in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Gilbert King entitled, The Devil in the Grove – Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”

One of Marshall’s associates working on the Groveland case was murdered.  Marshall was continually warned that “he would be next,” but survived several overt attempts on his life.  Nonetheless, Marshall took on the case in 1951 and successfully defended the surviving young men.

President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. Marshall remained on that court until 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson named him to be the United States Solicitor General, the first African American to hold the office.

On June 13, 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall to become the first African American on the United States Supreme Court. Marshall was confirmed in August 1967 and served for 24 years. He died in 1993 at the age of 86.

Marshall paved the way for every black lawyer who came after him. He set a high standard for intellectual excellence, studiousness, research and respect for the law. We continue to honor him as a “lion of the law.”

Attorney Jacqueline Hubbard graduated from the Boston University Law School. She is currently the president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.

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