Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Thurgood Marshall, From Howard U to Highest Court

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"Liberty is not the loser when the pressures of conformity to prejudice are removed by law." (Thurgood Marshall, Solicitor General of the United States, March 1967)

In the same year that President Lyndon B. Johnson asked him to serve as the first African American Supreme Court Justice, US Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall used these words in defense of the federal government's opposition to a California state constitutional amendment affirming the right of landlords and real estate officials to discriminate. In Reitman v. Mulkey, the US Supreme Court agreed with Marshall's argument, ruling this a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Marshall had been a lead civil rights attorney since the 1930s, after graduating from Howard University Law School at the top of his class. As a student, he had joined Charles Hamilton Houston, James Nabrit, and others in providing free legal assistance to DC's New Negro Alliance. He then began working with Houston and the NAACP on dismantling the racial segregation of schools, beginning with a case against University of Maryland Law School, which admitted whites only. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in Pearson v. Murray (1936) that the university's racial ban violated the 14th Amendment. In 1950, Marshall argued before the US Supreme Court that "separate but equal" facilities for black law school students were also unconstitutional. Such schools not only lacked sufficient facilities and enough faculty, but also prevented black students from participating in the free exchange of ideas and views that was fundamental to a legal education, Marshall argued.This case, Sweatt v. Painter, set precedent for the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Marshall and his family moved to Southwest DC from New York in the fall of 1965 when Marshall was appointed Solicitor General. As a Supreme Court Justice from 1967 until his retirement in 1991, he consistently argued against capital punishment and defended the rights of people charged with crimes. In the landmark affirmative action case, University of California v. Bakke (1978), Marshall endorsed race-conscious admission standards. "[D]uring most of the last 200 years," he wrote, "the Constitution as interpreted by this court did not prohibit the most ingenious and persuasive forms of discrimination.... Now, when a state acts to remedy the effects of that legacy…, I cannot believe that this same Constitution stands as a barrier."

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