As an attorney fighting to secure equality and justice through the courts, Thurgood Marshall helped build the legal foundation for Martin Luther King’s challenges to segregation. On 6 February 1958, King wrote Marshall to express his gratitude for Marshall’s efforts in the Montgomery bus boycott: “We will remain eternally grateful to you and your staff for the great work you have done for not only the Negro in particular but American Democracy in general” (Papers 4:360).
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall grew up in a middle class, politically active black family, and was taught early on to challenge injustice. Marshall earned his BA from Lincoln University in 1930. Unable to enroll at the University of Maryland because of its Jim Crow admission policy, Marshall attended Howard University Law School (JD, 1933). After working in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) national office as an assistant to chief counsel Charles Houston, his former law school professor, Marshall succeeded him as NAACP chief counsel in 1938. In 1940 he began directing the newly created NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall argued several landmark court cases that banned segregation practices, most notably Smith v. Allwright (1944), which won blacks the right to vote in Texas primaries; Morgan v. Virginia (1946), which banned segregation on interstate passenger carriers; and Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which required the admittance of a qualified black student to the University of Texas Law School.
Marshall’s most historic victory came in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, in which Marshall argued successfully against the doctrine of “separate but equal,” convincing the court that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and beginning the process of school desegregation.
Despite common beliefs in American democracy and integrationist goals, King and Marshall disagreed over tactics. Rather than civil disobedience and demonstrations, Marshall favored legal remedies as more efficient and effective. “I used to have a lot of fights with Martin about his theory about disobeying the law. I didn’t believe in that.” Marshall recalled. “I thought you did have a right to disobey a law, and you also had a right to go to jail for it. He kept talking about Thoreau, and I told him … ‘If I understand it, Thoreau wrote his book in jail. If you want to write a book, you go to jail and write it’” (Marshall, 471). Marshall did acknowledge King as “a great speaker,” and conceded that the protests “achieved much. If you put them in the scale, they would weigh very heavy, because it reached people’s consciousness” (Marshall, 479).
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, making him the second African American to serve as a federal appellate judge. From 1965 to 1967, Marshall served under President Lyndon B. Johnson as solicitor general, the government’s chief appellant lawyer before the Supreme Court, another first for an African American. In 1967 Marshall was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he remained the first and only African American justice until he retired in 1991.