On October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a United States Supreme Court justice. Long before President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first African American Supreme Court justice, Marshall had established himself as the nation’s leading legal civil rights advocate.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, Marshall graduated with honors from Lincoln University and received his law degree from Howard University in 1933, ranking first in his class. He soon joined the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and between 1940 and 1961 headed the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In 1954, Marshall achieved national recognition for his successful argument before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Supreme Court’s decision in this landmark case overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1889) by ruling that public school segregation was an unconstitutional violation of the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The Court’s unanimous decision in the case surprised many, including Marshall, and lent enhanced legitimacy to this major development in constitutional law. The Brown decision, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, brought the demise of a web of state and local laws which had bound African Americans to second-class citizenship.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and four years later President Johnson named him Solicitor General of the United States before appointing him to the Supreme Court. Marshall spent nearly twenty-five years on the Court, continuing to play a leading role in the legal fight to end racial discrimination in America by working to solidify the Brown decision and other civil rights victories through a series of judicial remedies.
Justice Marshall retired in 1991 and passed away on January 24, 1993. The Library’s Manuscript Division holds significant collections of his personal papers, both in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Records and the Thurgood Marshall Papers. Although these collections have not been digitized, there is considerable information available through the Library’s website about Marshall and the civil rights era.
- The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship provides an overview of African American history through the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, a direct result of Thurgood Marshall’s successful argument in Brown v. Board of Education, in the section on The Civil Rights Era.
- For information on the Supreme Court decree concerning implementation “with all deliberate speed” of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, see Felix Frankfurter’s draft decree to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education decision and notes from Supreme Court Justices Douglas, Burton, and Frankfurter to Chief Justice Warren.
- See the National Park Service’s Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park, an interpretive and educational center, for information about Brown v. Board of Education and its role in the civil rights movement.
- Explore Brown v. Board at Fifty: “With an Even Hand”, an online exhibit celebrating the anniversary of the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision.