Why a Supreme Court Justice Matters – Justice Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall is best known for his achievements in the courts and for arguing the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.


In 1967, Thurgood Marshall was nominated to the Supreme Court as the associate justice. He was the first African-American to hold the position, which he maintained for 24 years before retiring in 1991.

Marshall attended Howard University and majored in law. As an advocate to the NAACP, he used the legal system to advocate for African American equality. He won the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which proved that racial segregation in public schools was unlawful.

Thurgood Marshall


He was born to William Canfield Marshall and Norma Arica Williams in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908. His grandfather gave him the name Thoroughgood that was later abbreviated to Thurgood. Marshall’s father was a train porter, while his mother was a primary school teacher.

Marshall was raised by parents who instilled in him a devotion to the US Constitution and the rule of law.

Marshall learned to argue from his father, who took him and his brother to attend court proceedings and then debated whatever they had observed. After supper, the family discussed current affairs. Marshall stated that his father “molded me into a lawyer” despite the fact that he never encouraged him to become one. Marshall added that his father did that by “training me to debate, questioning my reasoning on each and every point, and by requiring me to justify every argument I made.”


Marshall was married twice. He and his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey,  married in 1929 immediately after his graduation.  Burey died in February 1955.  Marshall would later marry  Cecilia Suyat in December 1955. They were together until he passed in 1993.  Together, they had two sons: Thurgood Marshall Jr., a former top counselor to President Bill Clinton, and John W. Marshall, a former Director of the United States Marshals Service and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety.


Marshall enrolled in Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (later renamed as Frederick Douglass High School) where he excelled academically, especially as a member of the debating society.

In his younger days, Marshall was known as mischievous. His most significant high school achievement, memorizing the whole United States Constitution, was really a teacher’s penalty for disrupting the classroom.

Marshall graduated from high school in 1926 and enrolled in Lincoln University, a predominantly Black university in Pennsylvania. There, he joined a prestigious student community that included Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s future president, poet Langston Hughes, and jazz vocalist Cab Calloway.

Marshall applied at the University of Maryland Law School after graduating from Lincoln with honors in 1930. While being academically highly qualified, Marshall was denied admission due to his race. This firsthand encounter with educational inequality had a lasting impact on Marshall and helped to shape the direction of his profession.

Marshall went to law school in Washington, D.C. rather than Maryland at another predominantly Black university, Howard University Law School. Marshall was placed under Charles Hamilton Houston, who was a pioneering civil rights lawyer and the chairman of Howard Law School at the time. Charles Houston was a legendary workaholic and very demanding lecturer.

“He would not be content until he went to a college dance and found all of his students sitting around the wall reading legal books instead of partying,” Marshall said of Houston.

Marshall graduated from law school in 1933, finishing first in his class. After graduating from Howard, Marshall established a private practice law firm in Baltimore.


Murray v. Pearson

Marshall’s first big court win came in Murray v. Pearson in 1935, when he and his mentor Houston successfully sued the University of Maryland for refusing a Black candidate admittance to its law school on the basis of race.

Chambers v. Florida

Marshall’s first Supreme Court triumph came in Chambers v. Florida (1940), when he attempted to defend four Black men accused of murder based on statements taken from them by police.

Allwright v. Smith

Another significant Supreme Court win for Marshall occurred in the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, under which the Court overturned the Democratic Party’s practice of whites-only primaries in several Southern states.

Brown v. Board of Education

Marshall’s greatest triumph as a civil-rights advocate was his success in the classic 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of many Black parents in Topeka, Kansas, whose children were forced to attend all-Black segregated schools. In Brown v. Board, one of the most important verdicts of the twentieth century, Marshall confronted the legal underpinning of racial segregation, the doctrine of “separate but equal,” established by the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson.

The State Supreme court declared on May 17, 1954, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and so racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provision.

Brown v. Board laid the legal groundwork and supplied much of the motivation for the American Civil Rights Movement that unfurled over the next decades. Simultaneously, the decision established Marshall as one of America’s most accomplished and recognized lawyers.


Marshall issued over 100 judgments as a circuit court judge during the following four years, none of which were overturned by the Supreme Court.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, appointed Marshall as the first Black U.S. solicitor general; a position where he was the attorney designated to represent the government before the Supreme Court. During his two years as Solicitor General, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.


Marshall is regarded as one of the finest and most influential personalities in the American civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Many would argue that among these three men, Marshall was likely the most influential in the movement’s progress toward racial justice.

Marshall’s tactic of addressing racial inequalities through the courts offered a third approach to achieving racial justice, one that was more realistic than King’s lofty speech and less controversial than Malcolm X’s militant separatist.


Marshall died of a sudden heart attack in 1993, at the age of 84. In honor of Marshall, Texas Southern University’s law school, which was named and acknowledged as the “Thurgood Marshall School of Law” in 1978, focuses on teaching and training minority law students. Each year, the university ranks among the top 5 in the nation in proportion to the number of Black law graduates.

Furthermore, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which was created in 1987, provides financial assistance to almost 300,000 students who attend predominantly Black institutions, universities, teaching hospitals, and law schools.


Some of his famous quotes are listed below:

1. “A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.”

Thurgood Marshall

2. “I’m the world’s original gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough.”

Thurgood Marshall

3. “Truth is more than a mental exercise.”

Thurgood Marshall

4. “The process of democracy is one of change. Our laws are not frozen into immutable form, they are constantly in the process of revision in response to the needs of a changing society.”

Thurgood Marshall

5. “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up,”

Thurgood Marshall

6. “Certain people have a way of saying things that shake us at the core.”

Thurgood Marshall

7. “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”

Thurgood Marshall

8. “Each of you, as an individual, must pick your own goals. Listen to others, but do not become a blind follower.”

Thurgood Marshall

9. “What each of us must come to realize is that our intent always comes through.”

Thurgood Marshall

10. “We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Thurgood Marshall

11. “I never worked hard until I got to the Howard Law School and met Charlie Houston… I saw this man’s dedication, his vision, his willingness to sacrifice, and I told myself, ‘You either shape up or ship out.’”

Thurgood Marshall

12. “My father had a flat rule. He believed that every man’s house was his castle. He had a flat rule: no man could come in his house without his permission.”

Thurgood Marshall

13. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.”

Thurgood Marshall

Marshall’s quotes on Racism

15. “I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

Thurgood Marshall

16. “The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”

Thurgood Marshall

17. “Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.”

Thurgood Marshall

18. “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.”

Thurgood Marshall

19. “Lawlessness is lawlessness. Anarchy is anarchy is anarchy. Neither race nor color nor frustration is an excuse for either lawlessness or anarchy.”

Thurgood Marshall

20. “We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens.”

Thurgood Marshall


What is Thurgood Marshall best known for?

Thurgood Marshall is best known for his achievements in the courts and for arguing the landmark 1954 case “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka”.

Was Thurgood Marshall half white?

Marshall’s parents were of mixed heritage

Why is Thurgood Marshall important?

Thurgood Marshall is important because of his efforts to end prejudice against African Americans and by changing laws throughout the United States

Who was the first Black man to be named to the Supreme Court?

Thurgood Marshall was the first African American  appointed to the Supreme Court


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