The fight to end segregation was a three-pronged attack. The beloved Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. evoked sympathy from the nation, the militant Malcolm X evoked fear, and Thurgood Marshall evoked the law. While King and X gave blacks the courage to stand up to segregation, it was Marshall who fought for these brave people in court.
Through a systematic plan of legal attack, Marshall and the NAACP legal defense fund dismantled a system that had shackled blacks since slavery.
Before Marshall won his landmark cases in the Supreme Court, he got a little pay-back as a young attorney in Maryland. In 1936, Marshall won a major civil rights case that’s almost forgotten. The case, Murray v. Pearson forced the University of Maryland to accept its first African-American student. It was a sweet victory for Marshall who was denied entrance to Maryland five years later because he was black. The case caught the attention of NAACP leaders and Marshall joined the legal defense fund.
As a lawyer for the NAACP, Marshall won 27 of 33 cases that argued before the Supreme Court. His success also brought international acclaim. The United Nations and the United Kingdom asked Marshall to help draft the constitutions of the emerging African nations of Ghana and what is now Tanzania. Before his subsequent nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, Thurgood Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government.
Some of his more recognized triumphs were:
Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940) Marshall and his team of lawyers persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn a criminal conviction based on a coerced confession.
Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) Marshall convinced the Court to strike down a Texas practice which excluded blacks from participating in primary elections.
Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946) Marshall convinced the Court to strike down segregation on buses on routes of interstate travel).
Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948) Marshall convinced the Court to overturn lower court rulings in favor of restrictive covenants which prohibited land from being sold to African Americans.
Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631 (1948) and Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950) Marshall persuaded the Court to require universities in Oklahoma and Texas to integrate their law schools.
Marshall’s greatest triumph was in the landmark cases Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), Marshall challenged the constitutionality of “separate but equal.”Marshall’s civil rights lawsuits aren’t the sum of his career. As an attorney and justice, he created new protections under law for women, children, prisoners, and the homeless.
Read interviews and more information about Marshall’s career right here.