By Liana Stinson
For Thurgood Marshall, experiencing discrimination started from birth. Twelve years prior to his birth, the Supreme Court held that in places of public accommodations, black citizens could be legally segregated from white citizens as long as the separate facilities were “equal.” Marshall was born in the year 1908. In that same year, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed Kentucky to prohibit the integration of black and white students in a private college. There were eighty-nine lynchings recorded.
Baltimore was a “Jim Crow” town in that time. African Americans attended “colored schools” where its superintendent (Caucasian) very openly stated that “Negroes don’t deserve swimming pools.” Downtown, there were not department stores open to African Americans nor even restrooms. Segregation was very much alive when Marshall was growing up and was the “practice of the land.”
In high school, Marshall was a trouble maker. When a student was bad at Douglas High School, they were sent to the basement until they were able to memorize a paragraph of the Constitution. Marshall graduated high school able to recite the whole Constitution forwards and backwards. After high school, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a college for black males with an all-white faculty. Two thirds of the student body, included Marshall voted to keep it segregated. To get along in a segregated society, his mother taught him to just go along with it. However, a debate altered Marshall ‘s view that an all-white faculty evidenced his inferiority so he voted for integration the next time around.
Then came law school. Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School where he was denied admission, simply because he was black. Marshall ended up attending Howard University Law School and went on to graduate at the top of his class.
After law school, Marshall opened his own office at home in Baltimore. Ironically, one of his earlier cases was the representation of a man named Donald Murray. Murray was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of his race. The school offered Murray a scholarship to attend an out-of-state school on “separate but equal grounds.” Marshall argued, and later won, that an out of state education is not equal to a legal education at home.
Marshall continued to represent the powerless and poor blacks of Baltimore which left him in dire financial straits. Fortunately, he was then offered a position at the NAACP where he would travel to different courthouses to “knock holes in the walls of segregation.” However this road was not one without peril. During one instance while on the road, Marshall wanted to unwind at the local pub only to be told that they had no more drinks to serve. Marshall then attempted to left town only to be stopped by the police, one of whom was still upset that Marshall had helped get a defendant acquitted, and charged with drunk driving. While the charge was later dismissed by the judge the point remained clear, it was going to be a long road. Another instance occurred when Marshall was in Dallas to contest that blacks should not be excluded form jury duty. The police Chief gave orders to leave Marshall alone because the Chief “personally wanted the pleasure of assaulting Marshall.” Marshall, thankfully, had a State trooper guard him however, this situation ended with Marshall coming face to face with the Chief when Marshall was leaving the courthouse. The police Chief actually went for his gun but luckily, the trooper intervened.
The road Marshall had chosen was not without its benefits as with a number of incidences like these, came numerous Supreme Court victories: illegal to exclude blacks from jury duty; illegal to force black passengers to sit in the back of an interstate bus; illegal to exclude blacks from participating in the Texas primary elections; illegal to enforce restrictive covenants where property owners bind themselves not to sell or lease the property to a person of a certain race or color; etc. Perhaps one of Marshall’s greatest victories, was the desegregation of public education.
Before Marshall within the public education system, the schools for blacks and whites were ruled by “separate but equal.” However, in the unanimous decision Chief Justice Warren wrote: “To separate black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” These children simply wanted a chance to learn and grow equal to those chances of their white counterparts. Marshall vigorously fought against the segregated education, which at one point he voted for at Howard, and won.
Subsequently, thanks to Marshall, “white only” signs were taken down in public schools as well as publicly-owned facilities across the United States including places such as courtrooms, golf courses, and liquor stores.
Thurgood Marshall always thought of himself as a “lawyer first and a civil rights ‘leader’ – a term he was skeptical about – second.” Many people know him as one of the great Supreme Court Justices, however, most people seem to forget how many people Marshall helped that were wrongfully accused simply based on the color of their skin before he took the bench. He was an incredible trial lawyer with one of his colleagues noting that he had “never encountered in his years in practice or on the bench an attorney more skilled in cross-examination” than Marshall. The Supreme Court victories leading up to Marshall’s appointment as a Supreme Court Justice were indicative of his career to follow.
Mark Trushnet, Lawyer Thurgood Marshall, 44 Stan. L. Rev. 1277 (1992)
Daniel Pollitt, Thurgood Marshall, 21 N.C. Cent. L.J. 179 (1995)