Fulfilling the Promise
School of Law
by Steven D. Jamar
Thurgood Marshall was one of the architects of Brown v. Board of Education, and was the lead counsel arguing against the separate but equal rule of Plessy v. Ferguson. Charles Hamilton Houston was his mentor at and after Marshall attended Howard University School of Law. He went on to be the first African American on the United States Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. (born on July 2, 1908). He did well through high school and graduated from Lincoln University, a small private HBCU, in Pennsylvania in 1930. He then applied to the University of Maryland School of Law in 1930, but was denied admission. He then went to Howard University School of Law, in Washington, DC. Howard University had been created in 1867 in large part to educate slaves and the descendents of slaves. The HU law school was created two years later and to a very large degree created the black bar that developed and implemented the strategy leading to Brown.
In 1933 Thurgood Marshall graduated as valedictorian of HUSL and became a civil rights activist. In 1938 he became an attorney for the NAACP and in 1940 became the NAACP's chief counsel and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Among the many precedent-setting cases he argued were Smith v. Allwright (1944) in which the Court held that the exclusion of black voters from primary elections in Texas was unconstitutional and Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) in which the Court held that racial restrictive covenants in housing were unconstitutional.
But the most important work done by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and a few other attorneys was creating a number of precedents leading to Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954 Brown overruled Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and held "separate but equal" unconstitutional in public schools nationwide. Brown ultimately led to the dismantling of de jure discrimination. Among the major steps toward Brown was Pearson v. Murray (1936) in which Marshall and Houston fittingly established in Maryland's highest court that the University of Maryland School of Law could not exclude African Americans as Maryland had excluded Marshall just a few years earlier. Two years later in Gaines (1938) this principle was extended to the entire country when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Missouri could not exclude blacks from the state law school since there was no comparable, and could be no comparable, school in Missouri for African Americans because of the unique intangibles of a legal education. The principal was then extended further in a number of cases including Sweatt v. Painter (1950) which declared separate but equal facilities for black professionals and graduate students in state universities unconstitutional. Ultimately this precedent was extended to other schools and ultimately down to public primary and secondary education in Brown.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. He became President Lyndon B. Johnson's Solicitor General in 1965. Then in 1967 Pres. Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court where he served until he retired in 1991. He was the first African American to serve on the nation's highest court.
Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure on January 24, 1993.