Honoring Justice Thurgood Marshall: the right man and the right place

Thurgood Marshall, 6/13/1967. (National Archives Identifier 2803441)

On June 13, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to be the first African American justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

After graduating from Howard University Law School in 1933, Marshall worked in private practice in his home town, Baltimore. In one of his earliest cases, he represented the local chapter of the NAACP in a suit challenging the University of Maryland Law School’s segregation policy.

Marshall himself had been a victim of that policy, having applied to the program but turned down because he was Black.

After winning the case, Marshall joined the NAACP national staff in New York in 1936. For the next 25 years he led the legal challenge to end racial segregation in U.S.

Brown v. Board of Education, Order for Appearance, Thurgood Marshall, 12/3/1951. (National Archives Identifier 301670)

By mounting a series of federal court cases, Marshall set out to reverse the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision.

Marshall’s most famous segregation case was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” in public education ruling state-sanctioned segregation in public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment.

In the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, Marshall won 29.  

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a new position. Despite his immense qualifications, the confirmation was held up in the Senate, and Marshall served the first several months under a recess appointment.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s recommendation of Thurgood Marshall to a Federal judgeship on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, September 21, 1961. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)
Recess Commission recommendations including Thurgood Marshall to a Federal judgeship on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, October 3, 1961. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)

Marshall remained on the Court of Appeals until 1965, when President Johnson appointed Marshall to be the United States Solicitor General. Marshall was the first African American to hold that position. 

As U.S. Solicitor General, he was successful in 14 out of the 19 cases that he argued on behalf of the U.S. Government.

Because of Marshall’s stellar record, he rose to the top of Johnson’s list of possible Supreme Court candidates should a vacancy occur. In June 1967, Associate Justice Tom C. Clark’s retirement created that vacancy. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson Meeting with Thurgood Marshall in the Oval Office, 6/13/1967. (National Archives Identifier 2803439)

Johnson, a proponent of civil rights, was very much aware of the significance of appointing the first African American to the nation’s highest court. The President said of Marshall:

I believe he earned that appointment; he deserves the appointment. He is best qualified by training and by very valuable service to the country. I believe it is the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place. I trust that his nomination will be promptly considered by the Senate.

This time the confirmation process wasn’t quite as drawn out.

On August 30, 1967, by a 69-11 vote, the Senate confirmed the appointment, and Marshall took the oath of office on October 2, 1967. He served for 24 years, retiring on October 1, 1991.

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United States Supreme Court (Harry Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Byron White, Lewis Powell, William Renquist, and John Paul Stevens), 1981. (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)

During his early years on the court, he was a member of the liberal majority, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and later by Justice William Brennan. As the court became increasingly conservative in the Reagan years, Marshall was in the minority on many of the court’s decisions, most notably on its position on capital punishment.

Marshall believed the death penalty to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Marshall retired from the court in 1991 for health reasons, and died of heart failure on January 24, 1993.

Upon Marshall’s death, President Bill Clinton issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he said of Marshall:

Perhaps no other American lawyer has had more impact on the current meaning and content of the U.S. Constitution. As the leading attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund, Justice Marshall’s twenty-nine victories before the U.S. Supreme Court breathed life into the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and guaranteed all Americans equality and liberty in their individual choices concerning voting, housing, education, and travel. As an appeals court judge, the Solicitor General of the United States and, finally, Supreme Court Justice, he worked tirelessly to expand and protect his vision of justice for America. As our Nation begins to chart its course for the next century, it is fitting that we pause to honor and remember the courageous, purposeful life of Thurgood Marshall.

To honor the legacy of this native of Baltimore, the state of Maryland in 2005 named the Baltimore/Washington International Airport the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Read Marshall’s 1964 oral history interview from the John F. Kennedy Library.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s nomination of Marshall to the Supreme Court of the United States, the National Archives Museum is having a special exhibit in the East Rotunda Gallery from June 8 to July 26, 2017.

Message of President Lyndon B. Johnson Nominating Thurgood Marshall of New York to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 6/13/1967. (National Archives Identifier 306369)

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