How Thurgood Used The Law to Change Our World

ThurgoodWho was known as “Mr. Civil Rights” during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s? My list would include some of the following men: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Medgar Evars, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, or Whitney Young. There are plenty more and each of these men was hero of the cause. “Mr. Civil Rights” was the grandson of a slave, a champion of equality, a brilliant lawyer, U.S. Solicitor General, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and on June 13, 1967 he became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court of United States. He was born in Baltimore on July 2, 1908 as “Thoroughgood” Marshall. No, this isn’t a misspelling. As a strong-willed boy, he simply changed his name to “Thurgood” in the second grade because he felt “Thoroughgood” took too long to spell! He would go on to earn another name, “Mr. Civil Rights.”

In 1930, Marshall graduated with honors from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. However, he wanted to pursue law. His first choice was Maryland Law School, but he wasn’t accepted because of an “all-white” admission policy. Marshall was undaunted and enrolled at Howard Law School in Washington D.C. The Dean of the Law School was Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston sparked a flame inside of Marshall that social change could come by using existing laws.

Marshall won his first major civil rights case in 1936. In Murray v. Person, 182 A. 590 (Md. 1936), Marshall argued and convinced the Maryland State Court of Appeals to require the University of Maryland Law School to accept its first African American student. He and other NAACP lawyers were examples of how African-Americans could use the law to gain justice and equality. He won 27 out of 33 cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. Most notably: Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. (1940), regarding a coerced confession; Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), about exclusion of blacks in primary elections; Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. (1946), striking down bus segregation on interstate travel; Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), involving land discrimination; and Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631 (1948) and Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950), regarding the integration of law schools in Oklahoma and Texas. Perhaps Marshall’s magnum opus was the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) where he successfully argued that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional under the “Equal Protection” clause of section I of the Fourteenth Amendment.

For these reasons, Thurgood Marshall was arguably the most influential African-American during the Civil Rights movement and well deserving of the title “Mr. Civil Rights”. Our Dean, Andrew R. Klein, recommended a book called “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King. This book was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. I highly encourage you to read this book.

Finally, I realize that the struggle for racial equality continues and there is still work to be done. But I also can’t ignore some progress within my own lifetime. An African-American friend preached at my mother’s funeral and two of my daughter’s best friends are African-American. I am proud of these facts because I believe my little girl recognizes the content of people’s character regardless of the color of their skin. Thank you Thurgood! And thank you to all those men and women that paved the way.

To learn more about Thurgood Marshall please visit the following sites which were used as reference in the writing of this entry:

“Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Gilbert King




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About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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