On this day in 1967, Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. He would remain on the Supreme Court for 24 years before retiring for health reasons, leaving a legacy of upholding the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
After graduating law school, Marshall set up his own private practice, handling numerous cases for the Baltimore NAACP. He eventually won 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court, all of which challenged in some way the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine.The high-water mark came in 1954 with his unanimous victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In that monumental case, he raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Furthermore, relying on sociological tests, such as the ones performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other data, Marshall argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible. Marshall forcefully asserted the ‘separate but equal’ principle was grossly unconstitutional, and designed to keep blacks “as near (slavery) as possible.”
In 1961, Marshall was appointed by then-President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a position he held until 1965, when Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, named Marshall Solicitor General. Following the retirement of Justice Tom Clark in 1967, President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court, a decision confirmed by the Senate with a 69-11 vote.
Marshall once described his legal philosophy thusly: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” Going deeper, at the 1987 bicentennial of the Constitution, Marshall opined, “The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today . . . Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document . . . I plan to celebrate the . . . Constitution as a living document . . .”
Marshall retired in 1991 from the court. He died of heart failure in 1993 at age 84.