Thurgood Marshall, justice for all

Supreme Court: Civil rights attorney and judge took lead in cases that shattered segregation

Marylanders of the Century

July 01, 1999

NO ONE has done more to energize the civil rights movement and improve race relations in the United States than Thurgood Marshall. The Baltimore native was a juggernaut smashing through the obstacles of racial injustice.

Long before Martin Luther King Jr. and others took to the streets to appeal to the American conscience, Marshall won the crucial battles that built, block by block, the legal pillars of monumental change. He will be remembered as the first African-American Supreme Court justice, but his most important contributions to society came decades before.

As a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Marshall secured voting rights for African-Americans, railed against racially motivated criminal charges, stood behind black soldiers facing unfair charges in the military and argued the most significant Supreme Court case of the century -- Brown vs. Board of Education.

Only desegregation, he fervently believed, could cure the nation's racial virus.

For well more than half of this century, laws in the South prohibited African-Americans from using the same public accommodations as whites -- in spite of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. Black people had to use separate schools, public restrooms and water fountains. Black travelers on public conveyances had to move to segregated sections when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Jim Crow's ubiquitous face appeared in restaurants, hotels, movie theaters -- even churches.

Marshall graduated from a segregated public school in West Baltimore. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland Law School but didn't bother to apply because he knew he would be rejected because of his race.

He set out to change this soon after graduating from Howard University Law School, where he studied under the renowned Charles Houston.

With the legislative and executive branches of government indifferent to racism, he turned to the courts to prove that separate facilities for whites and blacks were inherently unequal under the law.

His first victory occurred in Baltimore.

He took UM's law school to court and won admission for Donald Murray, a black man, in 1935. It was a major triumph, but only the start for Marshall.

He went on to win a remarkable string of civil rights cases. His crusade sometimes meant risking personal safety -- a lynch mob once chased him in Tennessee.

Marshall was a tall, suave figure who relied on research and elegant moral persuasion.

He won over Supreme Court justices, who rarely heard presentations from black lawyers, and triumphed in 29 of his 32 high court cases as an NAACP lawyer.

The biggest, the Brown case, not only ended legal segregation of schools but gave the burgeoning civil rights movement the ammunition to fight for equality in the workplace, housing, politics and economic affairs.

Maryland and the United States are better off because Thurgood Marshall led the NAACP's groundbreaking efforts to confront morally bankrupt laws and practices.

He continued his crusade as an assertive and eloquent defender of civil rights -- for everyone -- for 24 years as a Supreme Court justice.

The result has not been a perfect society, but Marshall's work has created opportunities his contemporaries could only have dreamed about when he began his historic mission.

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