The conscience of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, pillar of the civil rights revolution, architect of the legal strategy that ended the era of official segregation and the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, died on January 24, 1993. A major figure in American public life for a half-century, he was 84 years old at death.

+ Mr. Marshall, who was born and reared in Baltimore, was excluded from the all-white law school at the University of Maryland. Later he brought successful lawsuits that integrated not only that school but also several other state university systems. He received his legal education at the law school of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

In the 1930s, Thurgood Marshall was a hero among Black communities in the South. At a time when lynching, segregation, and racist laws were used to keep Black people separate, terrified, impoverished, and very much unequal, watching a Black lawyer not only confront all-white juries, prosecutors, and judges but actually win was inspiring.

+ As chief legal counsel of the NAACP, Marshall oversaw hundreds of cases. He set a record for the number of cases argued and won in front of the Supreme Court — most famously, Brown v. Board of Education. And his quick wit and charm won over allies and enemies alike. But he was not without his flaws and complexities.

Marshall took over the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and argued Sweat v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education (1950). Having won these cases, and thus, establishing precedents for chipping away Jim Crow laws in higher education, Marshall succeeded when the Court delivered a unanimous decision in favor of integration of schools, declaring that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

+ Though-out his tenure on the Supreme Court, Marshall fought to apply the rules of the Constitution to everyone in America, not just the white men its authors had in mind. As the Court became increasingly conservative, Marshall was often the lone dissenter, especially in cases relating to criminal justice.

Thurgood Marshall was not a perfect person and he didn’t always find himself on the prevailing side of history. ( for example, his defense of J. Edgar Hoover, his criticisms of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tactics, and his support of the Vietnam War.) However, he is still a hero among civil rights legislators, thanks to his determination to force the Constitution to live up to its promise to protect everyone equally.

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