50 years ago today, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Marshall grew up in Baltimore, where he attended Fredrick Douglass High School. The school was named after the runaway slave and prominent abolitionist. Mr. Douglass actually spoke at the dedication of the high school before he passed away in 1895.
Mr. Marshall was an average student at Douglass High School, known more for pranks than academic achievement. However, after graduation he began participating in protests against the segregation of local movie theaters. African Americans were forced to walk up stairs from a side entrance to an area that looked more like a chicken coup than theater seating. He was inspired, and decided he wanted to pursue a career in law so he could have a greater impact on the fight.
He applied to the University of Maryland, but was denied admittance because of his race. Today if you went to the University of Maryland, you might find it ironic that the law school library is now named after him. If you flew there, you probably flew into Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall International Airport. In downtown Baltimore, there is a nine foot statue of Mr. Marshall.
He went to Howard University instead. After graduating, his first case was to sue the University of Maryland for denying admittance to another African American applicant. He won. Then, Mr. Marshall served as an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer for over two decades. In the 1950’s and 60’s in the American south, if an African American was accused of something, chances were very high that they would be found guilty with very little defense mounted, jailed, and possibly executed.
He would travel into the south to defend the accused at great risk to himself. He became a target of the KKK and other hate groups. He narrowly escaped many attempts to lynch him.
He kept coming back, even with a bounty on him.
When an African American was sitting scared and alone in a jail cell, wondering if they would be allowed to live, there were only two words that could give them hope:
Mr. Marshall won national prominence when he won the “Brown Vs. Board of Education” case in 1954, ending legal segregation in American schools. It is considered by many to be the most important decision the court ever rendered.
To understand the importance of Thurgood Marshall’s joining the Supreme Court, it is important to understand what our government looked like in 1967.
Of the 535 members of Congress, 12 were women, 7 were minority. There was not a single minority or woman serving in the President’s Cabinet.
Justice Marshall would serve on the Supreme Court for 24 years. He passed away in January 1993, days before he was set to perform the swearing in ceremony for Vice President Al Gore.
There are a lot of ways to fight racism. Thurgood Marshall showed us the best way to expose the stupidity of bigotry: winning.
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