Celebrating Thurgood Marshall’s Noble Work to Better the Lives of the Most Vulnerable

October 2, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

There really are very few Supreme Court justices worth celebrating and many more who are easily forgettable.

But Thurgood Marshall, who joined the high court 45 years ago today, was a champion of equality before he became the first African American to join, at that time, the all-male, all-white Supreme Court.

Marshall was named to the federal appeals court by President John F. Kennedy, and later to the Supreme Court by Lyndon B. Johnson. Both were historic appointments. As John Schachter notes in this post, much of Marshall’s life included historic achievements.

After being denied admissions to the University of Maryland’s law school, because of racism, Marshall earned a law degree from Howard University and launched what would be a trailblazing legal career bolstering and advancing equality and liberty in the country.

In 1940 he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has become one of the nation’s leading civil liberties groups. Before reaching the federal bench, Marshall, as a highly successful attorney, took to the courts and started toppling Jim Crow era laws, tawdry efforts to continue the oppression of African Americans. As Juan Williams wrote in Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, it was Marshall “who ended legal segregation in the United States. He won Supreme Court victories breaking down the color line in housing, transportation and voting, all of which overturned the ‘Separate-but-equal’ apartheid of American life in the first half of the century.” 

Of course Marshall’s greatest victory before the high court came in Brown v. Board of Education, where he argued that the odious separate-but-equal principle aimed to keep African Americans “as near [slavery] as possible,” violated the Constitution.

The Brown Court held, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

As a Supreme Court justice, Marshall continued expanding opportunities for the nation’s most vulnerable, in part, by staunchly supporting equality and privacy rights.

Marshall died in 1993, leaving a legacy that will resonate for innumberable decades to come. He was a champion of civil liberties, and also a realist. Marshall knew his country still had a long way to go toward achieving full equality on an array of fronts for all people.

There remains a rigged playing field, with plenty of public schools serving the privileged and too many others failing minorities and students of low-income families. The federal courts still lack enough diversity – though President Obama, far more than his predecessors, has sought to change that.

We can also find rays of hope, if we look hard enough. For instance, just this week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguably one of the nation’s most conservative Circuits, named its first African American chief judge. Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart succeeded Judge Edith H. Jones on Monday.