October 2, 1967 – Thurgood Marshall Is Sworn In As First African American Supreme Court Justice

On this day in history, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, making him the first African American to hold a seat on the Supreme Court.

Portrait Of Thurgood Marshall

Marshall attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and graduated a year early in 1925. Subsequently he went to Lincoln University and included among his classmates the poet Langston Hughes and the musician Cab Calloway. He graduated from Lincoln cum laude, with a major in American literature and philosophy.

Marshall wanted to go to University of Maryland Law School, but was prevented from doing so because it admitted only whites. He thus attended law school at Howard University (a private, federally chartered historically black university in Washington, D.C.) where he was mentored by the influential dean Charles Hamilton Houston. (Houston became the Litigation Director of NAACP and played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws, which earned him the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”.) In 1933 Marshall graduated first in his class. Three years later, he successfully argued a case against the University of Maryland Law School for its segregation policy in the State of Maryland Court of Appeals, ending that policy. (Pearson et al v. Murray, 182 A. 590, 169 Md. 478, 103 A.L.R. 706, Jan. 15, 1936.) You can read the decision here.

(Years later, the University of Maryland named its law library for Marshall, and the City of Baltimore honored him by placing a bronze likeness, more than eight feet tall, outside the Federal courthouse.)

Marshall became known for his high success rate in arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that desegregated public schools.

From left, attorneys George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr. celebrate their victory in the Brown case on May 17, 1954

From left, attorneys George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr. celebrate their victory in the Brown case on May 17, 1954

President John F. Kennedy appointed him to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to serve as the Solicitor General. In 1967, President Johnson nominated him to the United States Supreme Court.

In failing health, Marshall stepped down from the bench in 1991 even though he was reportedly unhappy that it would fall to President George H. W. Bush to name his replacement. Clarence Thomas was the man Bush nominated to replace Marshall. Marshall passed away in 1993 at the age of 84.

At his retirement, one of his former law clerks and later the Potter Stewart Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale Law School, Paul Gewirtz, wrote in a tribute:

He grew up in a ruthlessly discriminatory world — a world in which segregation of the races was pervasive and taken for granted, where lynching was common, where the black man’s inherent inferiority was proclaimed widely and wantonly. Thurgood Marshall had the capacity to imagine a radically different world, the imaginative capacity to believe that such a world was possible, the strength to sustain that image in the mind’s eye and the heart’s longing, and the courage and ability to make that imagined world real.”

(Gerwirtz’s entire tribute is moving and inspirational; you can read it online here.)

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