“To those of us who know that struggle is far from over, history has another lesson. It tells us how deeply rooted habits of prejudice are,” Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, once said.
Marshall dedicated his life to battling those deeply rooted prejudices through the United States legal system. Born to William Marshall, a steward and grandson of a slave, and Norma, a kindergarten teacher, on July 2, 1908, Thurgood developed a thirst for justice at an early age. On his way home from work, his father would stop at the local courthouse to listen to cases and then tell his sons all about the legal battles when he returned home.
"Now you want to know how I got involved in law?,” Thurgood later said. “I don't know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table."
In school, Marshall was smart and mischievous, a trait that actually provided him with an introduction to the U.S. Constitution. In high school, a teacher had him memorize the Constitution as punishment for his troublemaking. He went on to attend Lincoln University, a historically black college, along with fellow notable students including Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana, poet Langston Hughes, and jazz singer Cab Calloway.
Marshall then applied to the University of Maryland Law School with a stellar academic record, but was denied because of his race. Instead, he attended Howard University School of Law and found a mentor in pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. When he graduated, Marshall worked with the Baltimore branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and with Houston he represented Donald Murray, who like himself had been denied entrance to the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall and Houston won Murray v. Pearson in January 1936, the first in a long string of cases that challenged the legal basis for racial segregation in the United States.
One of Marshall’s greatest courtroom victories as a civil rights attorney was winning the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and therefore racial segregation of public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
In 1967, he made history again when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him to serve on the Supreme Court and he became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. He served for 24 years, utilizing his interpretation of the Constitution as a tool to champion equality. He retired in 1991 at the age of 83 and died two years later, leaving a legacy of championing equality and compassionate words to live by:
“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings,” he said. “We pay ourselves the highest tribute.”