Thurgood Marshall - An American Hero

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Portrait of Thurgood Marshall
Betsy Graves Reyneau. Thurgood Marshall (detail). 1956. Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Web.

“You do what you think is right and let the law catch up”—Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967. On his way to serving on the high court, Marshall put together an impressive legal career as an attorney. He was known as a tenacious defender of civil rights and made it his life’s purpose to fight inequality and promote social progress for all Americans.

As a young attorney, Marshall was victorious in a little-known case that will be the subject of an upcoming motion picture entitled Marshall (Oct. 2017). The State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell (1941) involved an African-American chauffeur who was accused of raping his white female employer multiple times. After hours of interrogation, the chauffeur Joseph Spell confessed to the rapes he did not commit. The press believed that this was an open and shut case after Snell confessed. However, Marshall was able to prove Joseph Spell’s innocence by highlighting inconsistencies and discrepancies in the testimony of his accuser. During cross-examination, the accuser’s story continued to change, leading the jury to doubt her credibility. Marshall was able to get a not-guilty verdict from an all-white jury when such an outcome was unheard of in a case like this.

Marshall’s most renowned victory as an attorney and chief legal counsel for the NAACP came in Brown vs. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954). In this case, African-American Oliver Brown wanted his young daughter to attend an all-white school that was a few blocks away from their home. Segregation laws ruled that she had to travel further away to the nearest African-American school. Marshall was able to push this case all the way to the Supreme Court in combination with other cases challenging school segregation. The decision in favor of Brown laid the foundation for the desegregation of public schools and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. As written in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion (p. 495): “We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

George Edward Chalmer Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit in 1954 winning Brown case

Throughout his legal career, Marshall fought many battles that made him a direct target of the Ku Klux Klan and others who opposed him. He often put his own life in danger to further the civil rights movement. His efforts and legal victories gained African Americans equal pay in the workplace, access to educational institutions, voting rights, and the opportunity to sit on a jury. His determination and constant fight for equality earned him the nickname "Mr. Civil Rights."

President Lyndon Johnson announces the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court

The legacy of Thurgood Marshall is one that endures to this day. If you would like to read more about his life and legal career, visit the Los Angeles Public Library’s Social Science, Philosophy, and Religion department to check out some of the titles we have in our collection.

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