Remembering Thurgood Marshall

August 30, 2012

by John Schachter

Forty-five years ago today, the U.S. Senate voted 69-11 to confirm Thurgood Marshall as the 96th Justice of the Supreme Court. That historic vote made Marshall the nation’s first African American justice and helped blaze a trail for others to follow.

When President Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the high court, he understood the historic importance, not just for the future of the court itself but for the broader issue of civil rights. Said Johnson, “I believe it's the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.”

Times sure have changed; only one of those 11 votes against confirmation came from the Republican side of the aisle. But Johnson did get some 20 other southern senators to abstain from the vote; they faced the choice of alienating portions of their constituencies who couldn’t stomach an African American on the highest court or voting against the president and his historic choice.

Marshall’s background is well known, from his more than two decades with the NAACP to his myriad arguments before the Supreme Court, culminating in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education. President John F. Kennedy put Marshall on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then Johnson made him solicitor general before the final promotion.

For nearly a quarter of a century Marshall served on the highest court of the land. His breakthrough was certainly a crack in the glass ceiling that helped lead to the historic election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president.

There’s one thing that stands out when writing about Thurgood Marshall, even in a brief note of remembrance such as this. The word “historic” follows him everywhere (it’s unavoidable – and appears in every paragraph above). That’s quite an appropriate legacy for this great man.

[image via Wikimedia Commons]