Thurgood Marshall was officially sworn in as America’s first black Supreme Court justice this week (Oct. 2) in 1967. Appointed by then-President Lyndon Johnson, Marshall’s confirmation hearings were highly contentious, thanks to a bloc of southern senators opposed to any black man sitting on the land’s highest court.
Then again, facing southern enmity was nothing new to Marshall. Since becoming the chief lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1936, he had waged the legal battle against segregation virtually alone, arguing most of the NAACP’s civil rights cases in hostile courtrooms throughout the South. Those years had helped sharpen both his legal skills and his survival skills, since he often faced physical harm and even death by southerners enraged at the very sight of an educated black man, let alone one attempting to end one of their most ingrained cultural institutions. In one Mississippi town, he would recall years later, a citizen had informed him that “the sun ain’t nevah set on a live nigguh in this town,” prompting Marshall to temporarily set aside his faith in constitutional guarantees and catch the next train out of town.
Those years also taught him a lot about the segregationist’s mindset, which he used to great effect when he argued his — and arguably America’s — most famous civil liberties case before the Supreme Court, Brown vs. The Board of Education. In that landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the “separate but equal” doctrine that had served as the foundation for the South’s segregated public school system violated the 14th Amendment, and was therefore illegal. With that victory, Marshall and the NAACP set the stage for the civil rights movement that would later burgeon under leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not surprisingly, during the 24 years he spent on the Supreme Court, Marshall became an advocate for what he perceived were Americans’ fundamental civil rights. He argued against discrimination based on race or sex; he opposed the death penalty as being “cruel and unusual punishment” (and disproportionally applied to minorities); he supported affirmative action, and believed women had a legal right to an abortion.
An unabashed liberal, Marshall spent his last years on the court increasingly in the minority as Republican presidents appointed more conservative justices, and by the time he retired in 1991, he was known mostly for his sharp dissents.
Someone once asked Marshall for his definition of “equal.” He replied, “Equal means getting the same thing at the same time and in the same place.” The “thing” Marshall most wanted all Americans to get, at the same time and place, was the equal opportunity to reach their full potential as U.S. citizens.