Chief Justice Earl Warren swears in Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and ’50s, Marshall was the architect and executor of the legal strategy that ended the era of official racial segregation.
The great-grandson of an enslaved person, Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1908. After being rejected from the University of Maryland Law School on account of his race, he was accepted at all-Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. At Howard, he studied under the tutelage of civil liberties lawyer Charles H. Houston and in 1933 graduated first in his class. In 1936, he joined the legal division of the NAACP, of which Houston was director, and two years later succeeded his mentor in the organization’s top legal post.
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As the NAACP’s chief counsel from 1938 to 1961, he argued more than a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully challenging racial segregation, most notably in public education. He won nearly all of these cases, including a groundbreaking victory in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the equal rights clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and was thus illegal. The decision served as a great impetus for the civil rights movement and ultimately led to the abolishment of segregation in all public facilities and accommodations.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but his nomination was opposed by many Southern senators, and he was not confirmed until the following year. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall to be solicitor general of the United States. In this position, he again successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court, this time on behalf of the U.S. government.