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Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Advocate


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• Part 2: His Life's Work

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Part 1: Foundation for His Struggle

Thurgood Marshall had one of the most recognizable names and faces of the civil rights movement in America. He gained everlasting fame as the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, he was named Thoroughgood, after his great-grandfather, who escaped slavery and fought for the North during the Civil War. The boy soon shortened his name to Thurgood.

He grew up very much in the shadow of segregation, graduating from Frederick Douglass High School (when he was 16) and Lincoln University. His first rejection at the hands of segregationists was a denial of admittance at the University of Maryland Law School. He went to Howard University, an African-American school, instead, and earned his law degree in 1933. The very next year, he began work for the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Very much a champion of the civil rights movement, Marshall made his mark by winning cases against segregation. His first big victory came in 1936, in a case known as Murray v. Pearson. Donald Murray was an African-American student who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School solely because of his race (just like Marshall). The judge agreed that such discrimination was illegal.

The very next year, Marshall won his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Chambers v. Florida. In that case, four African-American men were part of a larger group arrested for the murder of an older white man. The four men were held without being able to have representation by a lawyer and were subjected to intense questioning that bordered on cruelty. Under such conditions, the the four men eventually confessed and were convicted or capital murder and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ruled that the confessions were involuntary and dismissed them.

During this time, Marshall, as chief counsel for the NAACP, was also asked to help write the constitutions for the countries of Ghana and Tanzania.

Marshall (middle at left) began to build an impressive record of winning civil rights, especially before the Supreme Court. these included Smith v. Allwright (about voting rights), Shelley v. Kraemer (about property ownership), and Sweatt v. Painter (another law school admissions case). His most famous victory, however, came in 1954, when the Court accepted his argument that "separate but equal" public schools were illegal. This was the famous Brown v. Board of Education.

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