Thurgood Marshall: Our Supreme Justice

By McCoy, Frank | Black Enterprise, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Thurgood Marshall: Our Supreme Justice


McCoy, Frank, Black Enterprise


Last January 24th marked the death of a real American hero: former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. During his illustrious career, which ran from 1933 to 1991, Marshall planned, fought and won many battles abolishing the legal basis for American apartheid. He was this century's most important architect of American civil rights, having defended African-American voting rights, expanded women's rights, championed individual liberties and opposed the death penalty. His mastery of the legal system made him arguably history's greatest enforcer of freedom and liberty as espoused by the U.S. Constitution.

Although he always said, "They'll have to carry me out on a stretcher," before he would retire, health problems forced Marshall to step down from the High Court in June 1991. His was the most liberal voice on a Court stacked with conservative justices. His tenacious opposition to the Court's conservative tilt earned him the nickname "the great dissenter." In his final term, Marshall dissented in 25 of 112 cases - his final vote cast in the minority of a 6-3 decision reversing a previous Supreme Court ruling on capital punishment.

Marshall never forgot the weak. From 1940 to 1961, he served as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which fought all aspects of legal segregation. During that period, he won 29 of the 32 cases he brought before the courts. Most historians would probably say his most famous case was the NAACP's 1954 Supreme Court victory in Brown vs. Board of Education. This verdict destroyed the laws used to support the "separate but equal" doctrine. It became the first of a series of civil rights victories in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Ironically, Marshall did not view Brown vs. Board of Education as the NAACP's major achievement. In his biography, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall, he told author Carl T. Rowan that the 1944 decision in Smith vs. Allwright weighed equally to Brown. In that decision, Marshall convinced the High Court to rule that Texan and all Southern blacks should receive the purest form of black power: the right to vote. Now, nearly 50 years later, more than 8,000 African-Americans hold elective office, including a U. …

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