Before he became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was already a powerful civil rights pioneer: He argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court in his work as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the '40s and '50s. He won 29 of those cases, including landmark decisions about school segregation and voting rights. And although his name is synonymous with the civil rights battles of the 1950s, Marshall was also at the forefront of debates about police brutality, women’s rights, and the death penalty.
Over 50 years after his historic appointment to the nation’s highest court, Marshall is remembered both for his trailblazing work and for his big personality. (Justice Marshall was a devoted fan of Days of Our Lives and as solicitor general was known to “drink bourbon and tell stories full of lies” with President Lyndon Johnson.) Here are a few things to know about this civil rights hero and legal pioneer.
1. HE WASN'T ALWAYS THURGOOD.
Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Maryland in 1908. Young Thoroughgood would eventually change his name to Thurgood. He once admitted, “By the time I reached the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that out and had shortened it to Thurgood.”
2. HE LEARNED ABOUT LAW FROM HIS FATHER.
As a child in Baltimore, Marshall developed an interest in the law when his father William, a country club steward, took him to observe legal arguments at local courts. Thurgood and his father then had lengthy discussions around the dinner table during which Thurgood’s father fought every statement his son made. Justice Marshall said of his father in 1965, “He never told me to be a lawyer, but he turned me into one.”
3. AS A YOUNG LAWYER, MARSHALL FOUGHT FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN TEACHERS TO BE PAID FAIRLY.
During his time at Lincoln University (where he graduated with honors in 1930), Marshall’s family struggled to afford the tuition. His mother, Norma, who worked as a teacher, pleaded each term with the university’s registrar to accept late payments, whenever she could scrape together enough money to pay the cost of attendance.
Marshall tackled equal pay for African-American teachers after he graduated from Howard University’s law school in 1933. Six years later, Marshall won a big victory for teachers like his mother, when a federal court struck down pay discrimination against African-American teachers in Maryland. Marshall went on to fight for teacher pay equality in 10 states across the South. And many of his most well-known legal battles were fought against discrimination in public education, like Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
4. HE WORKED A NIGHT JOB AT A BALTIMORE HEALTH CLINIC DURING SOME OF THE BIGGEST LEGAL BATTLES OF HIS EARLY CAREER.
Marshall fought to make ends meet as a young lawyer. In 1934, he took a second job at a clinic that treated sexually transmitted diseases. Marshall worked at the clinic even as he prepared for the landmark case to integrate the University of Maryland. When he moved to New York in 1936, Marshall did not officially quit his night job—he merely requested a 6-month leave of absence from the clinic, according to biographer Larry S. Gibson. But Marshall never returned to his night job. By 1940, he had become the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
5. MARSHALL RISKED HIS LIFE WHILE FIGHTING CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLES.
While working for the NAACP in 1946, Marshall traveled to Columbia, Tennessee to defend a group of African-American men. Marshall and his colleagues feared for their safety after the trial and tried to leave town fast. But, according to biographer Wil Haygood, they were ambushed by locals on the road to Nashville. Marshall was arrested on false charges, placed in a sheriff's car, and driven quickly off the main road. His colleagues—who were told to keep driving to Nashville—followed the car, which then returned to the main road. Marshall said that he would have been lynched if not for the arrival of his colleagues.
6. HE WAS BOTH AN INFORMANT AND A SUBJECT OF AN FBI INVESTIGATION DURING THE RED SCARE.
In the 1950s, Marshall tipped off the FBI about communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP. But he was also the subject of FBI investigation, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI files, critics tried to connect Marshall to communism through his membership in the National Lawyers Guild, a group that was called "the legal bulwark of the Communist Party” by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Later, after he was nominated to the Supreme Court, Marshall’s opponents tried again to tie him to communism, but the FBI couldn't find any communist ties.
7. AFTER A ROCKY START, PRESIDENT KENNEDY APPOINTED MARSHALL TO HIS FIRST JUDICIAL ROLE.
President John F. Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to meet with Marshall about civil rights in 1961. But Marshall did not hit it off with the Kennedys and felt his experience on the topic was being discounted. According to Marshall, Bobby “spent all his time telling us what we should do.” Still, a few months later, Kennedy nominated Marshall to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. It took a year for the Senate to confirm his nomination, over the objection of several southern Senators.
8. PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON NOMINATED MARSHALL TO THE SUPREME COURT IN 1967, AFTER HE CREATIVELY ENGINEERED AN OPENING ON THE COURT.
In 1967, President Johnson wanted to put Marshall on the Supreme Court—but there wasn't a vacancy, so Johnson decided to do a little political maneuvering. According to the most common version of what happened, Johnson appointed Justice Tom Clark’s son, Ramsey, as the Attorney General, which made the elder Clark—who feared a conflict of interest—retire on June 12, 1967. Johnson officially nominated Marshall as his replacement the next day.
9. MARSHALL HAD TO UNDERGO AN INTENSE SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARING BEFORE TAKING HIS SEAT ON THE SUPREME COURT.
Marshall was sworn in to the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. But before he took the oath of office, he had to survive a grueling wait, as several senators from southern states worked to derail his nomination. For four days in July 1967, those senators questioned Marshall about his legal philosophy and imposed a quiz about political history, reminiscent of a Jim Crow-era literacy test. Marshall was subjected to more hours of questioning than any Supreme Court nominee before him. Finally, on August 30, the Senate voted to send him to the Supreme Court.
10. HIS LEGACY IS STILL DEBATED.
Marshall had a perfect record of supporting affirmative action and opposing capital punishment during his tenure on the Supreme Court. But he grew frustrated with the Court in the 1980s and announced his retirement in 1991. Then, in 2010, President Barack Obama nominated one of Marshall’s former clerks to the Supreme Court. During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, senators questioned her connection to Marshall and criticized his record. But Kagan speaks fondly about Marshall: “This was a man who created opportunities for so many people in this country and improved their lives. I would call him a hero. I would call him the greatest lawyer of the twentieth century.”