Who Was Thurgood Marshall? - Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and accomplishments of one of the most important American figures of the twentieth century and test your understanding of American politics, racism, and fights for equality.

Thurgood is Real Good

Few people in history get to make major contributions to promoting freedom and equality. Thurgood Marshall is one of them. Marshall was an important lawyer during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement and is responsible for the success of the major case 'Brown vs. Board of Education', which desegregated American schools. Later, he was nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States and was the first African American to serve as an Associate Justice.

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall

Growing Up

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was born in Maryland, the great-grandson of a slave from the Congo. His parents named him Thoroughgood, but he shortened it to Thurgood in second grade because he hated spelling it out. His parents gave him an appreciation of the U.S. Constitution and the law, and he attended college in Lincoln University, although he was suspended twice for pranks. Racism and equality were becoming important issues in American culture, especially the idea of segregation, which meant that blacks and whites had to be kept separate from each other. African Americans had to use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, and sit in different parts of restaurants and theaters than white people across much of the United States. In college he was involved in a sit-in, a peaceful protest against segregation in which protestors sit in areas for white people only and refuse to move. Marshall married Vivian Burey in 1929 and attended Howard University's School of Law, where he developed strong views against discrimination.

Protestors attempt to enter a whites-only restaurant
Civil Rights

Thurgood, Esquire

As an attorney, Marshall started his own practice in Baltimore and in 1934 took a case to represent a growing equal-justice group called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP. A year later, Marshall joined the NAACP's national staff. Marshall worked on several cases for African American rights, including black students who had been denied admission to white universities ('Murray vs. Pearson'), black men wrongfully accused of murder ('Chambers vs. Florida'), and laws that prevented blacks from voting in primary elections ('Smith vs. Allwright'). Marshall developed a reputation for winning the majority of his cases that went before the Supreme Court, and in 1940 he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to help give African Americans fair access the legal system.

Marshall (right) with the NAACP

Thurgood Marshall's most famous case was 'Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka', often just called 'Brown v. Board', in 1951. Since the 1896 Supreme Court case of 'Plessy vs. Ferguson', American law upheld the idea of 'separate but equal', which meant that states could allow segregation as long as they provided services to African Americans equal to those of whites. For example, they were allowed to segregate busses, and not let African Americans ride white-only busses, as long as the state provided separate busses for African American commuters.

In Topeka, Kansas this meant that white and black children went to separate public elementary schools. A lawsuit was filed against Topeka, and it lost. The families appealed, which took the case before the Supreme Court in 1953, and the NAACP brought its chief attorney, Thurgood Marshall, onto the case. Marshall argued that there was no way for public education to be separate but equal, because it was by its nature unequal. In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Marshall that separate education made black children feel unequal and prepared them only for a life of inequality. They ruled that no state in the USA could have segregated public education. This decision was huge. For the first time since 1896, a part of the 'Plessy vs. Ferguson' decision was deemed unconstitutional. Desegregating schools was the first major step in making segregation illegal across the United States.

African Americans protesting the segregation of schools
Civil Rights

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