Thurgood Marshall: The Great Dissenter
Thurgood Marshall didn’t know it then, but when he boarded an Oklahoma-bound train in 1941, he was just days away from the W.D. Lyons case, one that would fortify his commitment to overhauling the criminal justice system as he knew it. This son of a steward and schoolteacher was on a mission to defend a young, black sharecropper accused of murdering a white family and burning down their home. Losing the case was a devastating defeat, but it did not stop the young lawyer from leaving Oklahoma with an unbridled hope for the future.
Despite the loss, the lesson in constitutional law delivered to that Oklahoma courtroom in 1941 by Thurgood Marshall left a lasting impression on America. Historical successes in what would become landmark civil rights cases involving voting rights, the desegregation of schools, racially based restrictive covenants in real estate, and criminal cases would change America.
Originally named Thoroughgood for his paternal grandfather, young Marshall was born (1908) in Baltimore, Maryland. Described as “headstrong,” he shortened the name to Thurgood, explaining that he simply “got tired of spelling all that out.”
Marshall’s grandfather opened the largest black-owned grocery store in Baltimore: T.G. Marshall’s. It was known as “the place” for the black community to gather in fellowship.
Young Thurgood often accompanied his father, William Marshall, the first African American to serve on a grand jury in Baltimore, to witness court cases. When Thurgood misbehaved, he had to recite parts of the U.S. Constitution.
Marshall graduated from Lincoln University, a public historically black university, in 1930. He then applied to the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, but the segregation policies blocked his acceptance.
But that didn’t stop Marshall.
He entered Howard University Law School, where he graduated first in his class of 1933. That same year, Marshall opened his own practice. In 1935, he successfully sued UM Law School on behalf of African-American applicant Donald Murray, resulting in a landmark ruling that desegregated the school. The Thurgood Marshall Law Library on UM’s campus bears his name.
Marshall joined the NAACP defense team in 1936. In 1954, he won the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the desegregation of schools across the country. In 1961, he was named Solicitor General, the highest government post ever held by an African American at the time. In 1967, he became the first African-American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marshall continued his lifelong fight against discrimination to protect the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable Americans until he retired in 1991. He died in 1993.
In the conservative era (1970s and 80s), Marshall became known as “the great dissenter” for his vigorous opposition to majority Supreme Court decisions he believed violated human and civil rights. Throughout his life, he would effectively hold a mirror to the deep racial gaps in the criminal justice system. Tales of Marshall’s endless miles on the road and rail, risking his life to defend the powerless and falsely accused, even today, spellbind us all.