By Will Caraccio
Growing up in the United States during the 1920s, Thurgood Marshall encountered the cruel prejudice of racism on a daily basis. To most African-Americans at the time, racial discrimination was not an infrequent disruption but a fact of life, an ideology thoroughly ingrained in the American zeitgeist. When Marshall accompanied his father to witness a trial in town, he made a vital realization that would prove consequential in the civil rights movement just a few decades later: the law could be used as a vehicle for racial justice. And so it was: winning nearly 30 victories in the Supreme Court, including many landmark Civil Rights cases, and becoming the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice, Marshall became an unparalleled champion of civil rights, justice, and profound heroism.
Graduating Howard University Law School in 1933–an impressive feat considering many prestigious universities refused admission to African-American students–Marshall began practicing law in Baltimore, a metropolitan area fraught with racial tension and intense discrimination. His impressive argumentative and oratorical skills ensured his success in the legal field, and just a few years after winning Murray vs. Pearson–an important case asserting that withholding university admissions on the basis of race violates the 14th Amendment–Marshall was named Chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Representing the NAACP throughout the 40s and 50s, Marshall used the judicial branch as a means of forcing change in a time where Congress refused to act. Bringing 32 cases to the Supreme Court, Marshall won 29; putting his truly brilliant legal mind and argumentative expertise to the cause of racial justice, Marshall chipped away at the infrastructure of white supremacy in the US by winning landmark cases in Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, Sweatt v. Painter, and most importantly, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which struck down the prejudicial policy of “separate but equal.”
In 1961, Marshall was appointed by John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals so that Marshall could continue pursuing equal rights for African-Americans from the most powerful position in the courtroom: the judge’s chair. Six years later Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court as the first African-American to ever sit on the bench as an Associate Justice. During his tenure on the Supreme Court, which lasted from 1967-1991, Marshall continued his staunch pursuit of equality and societal progression. He fiercely supported upholding individual rights, expanding civil rights, and limiting the scope of criminal punishment.
Remembered as one of the most consequential figures in the Civil Rights Movement and an unwavering advocate for racial justice on the Supreme Court until his death in 1993, Thurgood Marshall stands today as a beacon of unwavering courage in the face of vitriolic prejudice.