Bom in Baltimore,Maryland, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-Ameri¬ can member of the US Supreme Court after a career as legal counsel to the NAACP. Edu¬ cated in segregated schools, where he was often forced to memo¬ rize passages of the US Constitution as punishment, and Lin¬ coln University, where he received a B.A. in predentistry,Marshall chose to study law and entered Howard University Law School.
Mentored by the brilliant designer of Howard’s Law School, Charles H. Houston (see no. 55), Marshall was the obvious choice to succeed him as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in 1938. For the base of his career Marshall fought civil rights battles using the Legal Defense Fund to slowly chip away at segregationist poli¬ cies.
In 1896 the Supreme Court had estab¬ lished a precedent by accepting the “separate but equal” interpretation that closed Plessy v. Fergusson. Thurgood Marshall, acting on the teaching of Charles Houston, who believed that lawyers had to work as social engineers, took the case of Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was rejected by Missouri Law School, to the Supreme Court, winning the first case that put Plessy v. Fergusson into question.
Argu¬ ing that no “separate” institution of “equal” value existed, Marshall convinced the Supreme Court to mle that Gaines would be admitted to Missouri University. By forcing the Supreme Court to ask the question, “What is equal?” Marshall took a step toward the case that finally ended segrega¬ tion in schools nation¬ wide.
In all, Marshall took 32 cases to the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them. The one that out¬ lawed any school segre¬ gation was Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, he went into court with evidence proving that separate inherently meant unequal.
Show¬ ing through psychologi¬ cal testing that African- American students were disadvantaged by their removal from mainstream society, Marshall convinced the courts to overthrow Plessy v. Fergusson, a dangerous stumbling block for African-Americans seeking equality. Though it took many court battles to prove it, there was no longer a legal leg to stand on in favor of segregation.
Winning against the Board of Education was not Marshall’s only goal. He coordinat¬ ed legal battles against discrimination in voting and housing. He was not only the main legal counsel for the NAACP, but was appointed by John F. Kennedy to the US Court ofAppeals in 1961.
None of his deci¬ sions were overturned by higher courts. He was appointed US solicitor general by Lyn¬ don B. Johnson in 1965, and Johnson appointed him to the US Supreme Court in 1967, where he became a national symbol for the rights and freedoms of disadvan¬ taged Americans.
After serving as one of the most respect¬ ed members of the court, Marshall retired in 1991, replaced by Clarence Thomas, the second African-American man to serve in the nation’s highest court.