Thurgood Marshall

by Jennifer Breneman

As a descendant of slaves, Justice Marshall no doubt did revolutionary work as an attorney and Supreme Court justice striving to ensure equal treatment for all. However, before he took his seat upon the highest bench in the United States, he was just like us (kind of).

Thurgood Marshall was raised not too far from here, in Baltimore, Maryland.[1] His mother was a teacher and his father was a railroad porter.[2] Marshall as a youth is said to have “worn life like a loose garment.”[3] In elementary school, he misbehaved so often that the principal sent him almost daily into “solitary confinement” in the school’s basement.[4] He graduated high school one year early with a B average. Although, the perceived stoic image of a supreme court justice was far from what Marshall portrayed in high school. In fact, as a youth, he got into trouble so often that he was punished by being made to memorize lines of the U.S. Constitution[5] (which just happened to come in handy later in life). By the time he graduated, according to biographers, Marshall knew the document by heart.[6]

He went on to attend Lincoln University.[7] At Lincoln, the future justice apparently exceled at more than just his studies. He wasn’t known for taking himself seriously, and often disobeyed authority. During college, Marshall skipped studying to play pinochle and poker.[8] He was actually thrown out of college two times for fraternity pranks.[9] Marshall’s career path may have been very different and it has been said that he may have pursued a career in dentistry, except for his inability to behave in biology class. He antagonized his biology teacher so much that he flunked the class.[10]

Despite all of this collegiate shenanigans, Marshall graduated from college with cum laude honors,.[11] He went on to Howard Law School where he buckled down in his studies.[12] However, even in law school, it was said that he “was boisterous, paid minimal attention to clothing and cussed a lot,” according to University of Maryland’s Gibson. He was further described as a “chain smoker” who could “hold his liquor.” Despite this, Marshall graduated first in his law school class.[13]

Despite the nonchalant façade, Marshall was deeply interested in seeing equal treatment become a reality. After law school, Marshall actively and aggressively pursued this goal. In fact, it is noted that he

represent[ed] criminal defendants, soldiers, and laborers in jury trials. He coordinated the NAACP’s national legal strategy in countless lawsuits and hounded the FBI to prevent or respond to racial violence. When he learned of a racist product on the shelf, like Whitman’s Pickaninny Peppermints, Marshall fired off a note to its manufacturer; he answered bigoted newspaper stories with letters to the editor. More than once, he almost got himself killed.[14]

And the rest, as they say, is history. Knowing that a youthful troublemaker like Thurgood Marshall could grow into someone who was known as arguably the greatest civil rights and constitutional lawyer of the 20th century provides hope for other law students who may not have it all together quite yet.



[3] Id.



[6] Id.



[9] Id.

[10] Id.



[13] Id.


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