On this day, October 2, in 1967,
Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as the first black United States Supreme Court Justice
“My father never told me to become a lawyer, but he turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”
The story behind this milestone is an intriguing one. Born in 1908, Thoroughgood Marshall (He changed it to Thurgood) was separated from slavery by two generations. Yet he became a compassionate figure in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.
In his youth, Marshall may not have seen himself as a serious academic. He was actually suspended from school for hazing and playing pranks on other students. Yet he graduated high school early. And later on he graduated magna cum laude at his law school.
The trail of Thurgood Marshall’s remarkable career began in his childhood. His mother was a teacher, and his father worked as a railroad porter. Both parents took active interests in their children’s education.
Debating and presenting arguments became a family tradition. At dinner they would debate current events. Thurgood’s father used to bring him and his brother to the courthouse just to watch court cases. After a case. they would debate what they saw in court.
As Thurgood Marshall put it, his father never told him to become a lawyer, but “he turned me into one.” Constantly challenging his son to think and deliberate, Thurgood’s father played a significant role in his development.
Marshall attended Howard University School Of Law and graduated magna cum laude in 1933. Soon thereafter he began arguing cases against racial segregation and discrimination, and established a long-term relationship with the NAACP. As founder and executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Marshall found himself arguing civil rights cases before the Supreme Court.
In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Thurgood Marshall argued that because separate educational facilities for whites and blacks were more often than not “unequal,” racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Marshall won the case in a unanimous decision.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to a newly created seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. A clear majority of the Senate approved, and on October 2, 1967 Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Today, fifty-three years later, the United States has just lost an associate justice of the Supreme Court and is in the process of considering a successor. Questions of racial equity are as pronounced today as they were when Thurgood Marshall became a Supreme Court justice. Even moreso because today’s leadership in all three branches of government has shown more willingness to undo what the civil rights movement of the 1960’s has accomplished than to preserve it.
In addition, instead of the careful vetting that past presidents and Senates have done to be sure the candidate is truly worthy of the honor and responsibility of sitting on the highest court in the land, the current president and Senate are on course to speed up the process just to have a political ally on the bench.
We the people can learn a lot from the achievements of Justice Marshall. Like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall fought for the people who are less powerful because they are poor or because of discrimination. Supreme Court justices are supposed to make the law work for “we the people,” not just the powerful few