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A Week to Remember: Thurgood Marshall Joins the Supreme Court

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Central Library,
Photo of Thurgood Marshall

Fifty years ago this week, on October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the first African-American to hold that position. It was the culmination of a distinguished legal career. 

Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from high school a year early, and began his studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1925. Lincoln University is the oldest of the historically black universities in the country, and Marshall's classmates there included Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway. He went on to the Howard University School of Law, where he developed a strong bond with the dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who was an important mentor. 

Marshall graduated first in his class at Howard in 1933, and went into private practice in Baltimore. He began working for the local branch of the NAACP in 1934, a relationship that would last for decades. That part of his career is explored in the documentary Mr. Civil Rights (streaming, DVD).

In the 1940s and 1950s, Marshall appeared frequently before the Supreme Court, and won many major victories that contributed to the civil rights movement. Most important was the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Court unanimously declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. In Root and Branch (e-book, e-audio, print), Rawn James, Jr. covers the Brown case with particular focus on the partnership of Marshall and his law-school mentor, Charles Houston.

President Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals in 1961; a group of southern Senators attempted to block the nomination, but failed. Marshall served on that court until 1965, when President Johnson appointed him to be Solicitor General, representing the United States in its appearances before the Supreme Court. In that position, Marshall was the highest-ranking African-American official to date in American government.

In June 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, saying that it was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." After a contentious hearing, the Senate confirmed Marshall's nomination by a vote of 69-11. Wil Haygood tells the story of that hearing in Showdown (e-book, e-audio, print).

Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, where he was a fierce advocate for individual rights, particularly those of criminal defendants, and against the death penalty, which he believed was unconstitutional in all cases. Marshall once described his legal philosophy as "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up." Many of his law clerks at the Supreme Court have gone on to distinguished careers of their own, including current Associate Justice Elena Kagan.


Also This Week


  • October 4, 1937: Jackie Collins is born. After a brief attempt to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Joan, by becoming an actress, Jackie turned to writing novels. Her books were romance novels, and Collins cheerfully acknowledged that they were racy fluff. "I never pretended to be a literary writer," she said of her work. Several of her books tell the multigenerational saga of the Santangelos, focusing on Lucky, a mobster's daughter in search of love. The series begins with Chances, available as an e-book or e-audio (in 2 parts: part 1, part 2) at OverDrive.
  • October 7, 1943: Oliver North is born.  North, a United States Marine who was decorated for his service during the Vietnam War, was working for the National Security Council in the late 1980s during the Iran-Contra political scandal; he acknowledged having been involved in illegal arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels. He was convicted of three felony counts for his role in the affair, but the convictions were overturned on appeal. In 1994, North ran for the United States Senate from Virginia, nearly defeating incumbent Senator Chuck Robb. North's campaign is the subject of the documentary A Perfect Candidate, available for streaming at Hoopla.
  • October 4, 1967: Liev Schreiber is born. Schreiber has acted in film, theater, and television for more than 20 years, and has been particularly praised for his stage appearances in Shakespeare plays. He frequently works as a voiceover narrator for documentaries, often for HBO's sports films. Currently, Schreiber stars on the TV series Ray Donovan. Goon is a relatively rare comedy role for Schreiber; he plays an "enforcer" for a minor-league hockey team, whose job is to get into fights with the opposing team when necessary. Goon is available for streaming at Hoopla.
  • October 7, 1967: Toni Braxton is born. Braxton began performing with her four sisters as The Braxtons in the late 1980s. The group was not a commercial success, but it led to Toni Braxton's career as a solo artist. She was one of the most popular R&B singers of the 1990s, with hits that included "Another Sad Love Song," "You're Makin' Me High," and "Un-Break My Heart." Since 2011, Braxton and her sisters have appeared in the TV reality series Braxton Family Values. Several of Braxton's albums are available for streaming or download at Freegal.

 

 

 

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