Thurgood Marshall: Fighter for Justice Reference

Lewis H. Fenderson

Thurgood Marshall

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A brilliant litigator, Marshall was the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court. As an advocate and jurist, he had a sustained commitment to equal justice under the law.

Early Life

Thurgood Marshall was born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Canfield Marshall, was employed as a waiter and came to be head steward at the affluent Gibson Island Club on the Chesapeake Bay by the time Marshall reached school age. Marshall’s mother, née Norma Arica Williams, taught in the Baltimore schools for more than thirty years. Both of their families had resided in Maryland for some time. The Marshall family enjoyed a comfortable, stable, middle-class existence. The achievement of this status by a black family less than forty years after the abolition of slavery in the United States is remarkable. Although Maryland, in general, and Baltimore, in particular, were quite well-known for their relatively large free black populations, even modest financial legacies were the exception rather than the rule for most blacks in those decades following the Civil War.

One of Marshall’s great grandfathers had been a slave, and little is known about him. Marshall’s paternal grandfather, Thoroughgood Marshall, served in the United States merchant marine for many years, and his maternal grandfather, Isaiah Olive Branch Williams, also spent a number of years traveling abroad. Both gave up a life at sea to settle in the Baltimore area; also, both owned and operated grocery stores.

Marshall grew up in a world of books, opera, and tales of adventure. He came into contact with black men who were important and influential in their own communities, and, consequently, he lived in a world of conversation, debate, curiosity, and political and racial awareness. He enjoyed a supportive, extended family network which protected and encouraged in him the growth and development of an independent, well-adjusted, and assertive personality.

Two ambitious, disciplined, and playful young men grew up in the Marshall household. Both sons earned undergraduate degrees at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Opened in 1856, the historically black university offered the two Marshall youths unique educational and social opportunities. In addition to employing an all-white, essentially Princeton-trained faculty, the college attracted a variety of individuals from throughout the black community. Marshall’s classmates included, for example, Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana between 1960 and 1966, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who served as president of Nigeria between 1963 and 1966. Marshall’s older brother, William Aubrey, chose medicine as his profession and became a surgeon. Only a quarter of a century before Marshall’s graduation there were only 1,734 black doctors in the United States and even fewer black lawyers—only 728.

Before he was graduated from Lincoln, the gregarious Marshall married Vivian Burey and became more focused in his academic interests. He was graduated at the top of his class and chose to attend Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.

Marshall’s school years do not, at first glance, seem to have anticipated his participation in a more equal, more fully integrated society. He grew up in an essentially segregated community, attended segregated public schools, a black university, and a predominantly black professional school. Clearly, this environment reflected the legacy of racism, yet Marshall’s experiences during this period helped him to secure his racial identity, his long-standing principles, and his tendency to work and to fight for those things in which he believed. During this period, too, he came into contact with faculty members of vision who recognized his talent, challenging and directing the lanky, brash, and assertive young man in his preparations for a highly competitive profession. Particularly important was Marshall’s association with Charles H. Houston, a Phi Beta Kappa at Amherst and a Harvard Law School graduate. Under Houston’s tutelage, Marshall excelled as a law student; later, when Houston became counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he hired Marshall as assistant counsel.

Life’s Work

Marshall began his law career when he was graduated from the Howard University Law School at the head of his class in 1933. His career began inauspiciously in Baltimore, Maryland, as the Great Depression hung over the nation. Marshall was not immune to the hardships most Americans were experiencing and found it necessary to supplement the meager income he earned in his law practice with money he earned by acting as counsel to the local NAACP branch. The young lawyer unknowingly took the first step in an...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)