Thurgood Marshall

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This hero had a single life's goal: to tear down the legal structures that enabled and supported racism in the United States. His work not only served to re-engineer society, it provided a roadmap for lawyers everywhere dedicated to fighting institutionalized injustice.

Thurgood Marshall was named Thoroughgood when he was born in Baltimore in the U.S. state of Maryland in 1908. That's the name his paternal grandfather took when he enlisted to fight in the U.S. Civil War. But the younger Thoroughgood grew tired of spelling out so many letters. So as a school boy he changed it to Thurgood. And the world grew to know his name.

Whether they realized it or not, Americans of all ages, genders, and races still benefit from Thurgood Marshall's achievements. His life's work was the eradication of laws that permitted discrimination and made black people second-class citizens under the banner of "separate but equal." 


Thurgood Marshall studied to be a lawyer and became the first black judge on the highest court in the land: the US Supreme Court. But what many of his friends and colleagues saw -- and one of the many reasons his legacy is so revered -- is that he was a born storyteller.

A fellow jurist recounted Thurgood's storytelling skills in a tribute published after his death in 1993: "The locales are varied -- from dusty courtrooms in the Deep South, to a confrontation with General MacArthur in the Far East, to the drafting sessions for the Kenyan Constitution," the story went. "They are brought to life by all the tricks of the storyteller's art: the fluid voice, the mobile eyebrows, the sidelong glance, the pregnant pause and the wry smile."


Thurgood Marshall liked to say he gained his deep knowledge of the US Constitution as a school boy, when he was made to read the document as punishment. "Instead of making us copy out stuff on the blackboard after school when we misbehaved, our teacher sent us down into the basement to learn parts of the Constitution," he recalled. "I made my way through every paragraph."

And he learned it well. His mother sold her wedding jewelry to help put Thurgood through law school. Once graduated -- during the hardest of the hard economic era known as the Great Depression -- his new law office in Baltimore focused on civil-rights cases for struggling clients, carrying out the wishes of his mentor at Howard University Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston, who "insisted that we be social engineers rather than lawyers."


In 1936, Houston hired Marshall to be a lawyer for the leading civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). That's when their "march" against institutionalized racism began. They sued to stop segregation in professional schools, believing that ambitious strivers would be quite sympathetic to judges. They reached their legal destination in 1954 when Marshall argued successfully before the Supreme Court that the doctrine of "separate but equal" in public schools was unconstitutional. Amid the legal intricacies, Marshall had a way of boiling down the most complex arguments. Asked what he meant by "equal," he replied, "Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place."

By the time Thurgood Marshall was nominated to be the first black justice of the US Supreme Court in 1967, he had argued 32 cases before the court of which he won 29. He argued 14 of those cases as a private lawyer and 18 as a government appointee. And the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, a movement he played a large part in spearheading. He stands alongside such figures as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in changing the course of history for the better. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. 

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