Thurgood Marshall Nominated: First Black Supreme Court Justice

This past weekend marked the anniversary of an important event in American history: on 13 June 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his historic nomination of Thurgood Marshall, whose great-grandfather had been a slave, to be the first African American Supreme Court justice in the nation’s history.

photo of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Photo: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Source: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

As expected there was opposition to this bold move, especially from such conservative Southern politicians as Senator Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. However, Marshall’s impressive qualifications were too strong to be denied, and on August 30 the Senate confirmed him as an associate justice of the Supreme Court by a vote of 69-11. Marshall went on to serve the Court for 24 distinguished years.

His qualifications included serving as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a quarter-century, 23 of those years as chief legal officer. During that time his reputation as a keen legal mind was cemented by winning the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the Supreme Court case that ruled school segregation was unconstitutional. Marshall argued more cases before the Supreme Court than any other lawyer in history.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After serving on that bench for four years, Marshall was appointed the U.S. solicitor general by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965—the 32nd U.S. solicitor general, and the first African American to hold that position. This was the post he occupied when President Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court.

During his tenure on the bench of the Supreme Court, Marshall earned a reputation as a tireless supporter of minority rights, civil liberties, and protection of the downtrodden in American society. He relied heavily on constitutional protections of individual rights, supported abortion, and opposed the death penalty.

When he retired due to failing health in 1991, Marshall was succeeded by Justice Clarence Thomas, the nation’s second African American Supreme Court justice. Marshall died at the age of 84 on 24 January 1993.

First Negro Named to Supreme Court: Thurgood Marshall Appointed, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 13 June 1967

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 13 June 1967, page 1

This historical newspaper article reports:

Washington—(UPI)—President Johnson today named Thurgood Marshall to be the first Negro justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Johnson personally announced the selection to newsmen at the White House. Marshall stood beside him.

Marshall will succeed Justice Tom C. Clark on the court.

Justice Clark announced his retirement after his son, Ramsey Clark, was named attorney general.

The elder Clark ended his active service on the high tribunal after the court adjourned its term yesterday.

Marshall has been a trailblazer among Negroes throughout his career. His appointment as solicitor general in August 1965 was unprecedented for a member of his race.

Prior to that, the late President John F. Kennedy had appointed Marshall in 1962 as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

The new justice is the great-grandson of a slave who was brought to the United States from The Congo. His father was a steward at a fashionable Chesapeake Bay country club.

Before taking the government posts, Marshall won a widespread legal reputation in battling civil rights causes in the courts.

In 1935, Marshall compelled the admission of a Negro law student at the University of Maryland—a school where he himself had been denied entry.

In 1936, Marshall joined the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and two years later became head of its legal operations.

Marshall’s biggest triumph came in 1954 when he won the historic United States Supreme Court case declaring school segregation unconstitutional.

Attorney General Ramsey Clark said Marshall’s elevation to the Supreme Court would add “a wealth of legal experience rarely equaled in the history of the court.”

The new justice was born in Baltimore July 2, 1908, and graduated cum laude from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania but only after having been expelled in his sophomore year for hazing freshmen.

Marshall then entered Howard University Law School in Washington. He recalls: “I got the horsin’ around out of my system. I heard lawbooks were to dig in. So I dug, way deep.”

The 58-year-old nominee is a six-footer who weighs around 210 pounds. His wife is the former Cecilia Suyat. They have two sons.

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17 May 1954: Supreme Court Rules against School Segregation

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most momentous U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the nation’s history, one so profound that it forever changed life in America. On 17 May 1954, the Court announced its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This unanimous Supreme Court ruling overturned the established “separate but equal” doctrine, opening up the path to integration and giving the Civil Rights Movement a solid legal foundation.

School Segregation Outlawed, Advocate newspaper article 18 May 1954

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 18 May 1954, page 1

On that May 17 day when Chief Justice Warren read the decision, the Supreme Court broke with its own tradition. Usually, reporters in the courtroom were handed printed copies of the decision just prior to its public reading. On that day, however, no printed copies were distributed, and it took a while before the Court’s decision was finally known. Everyone had to wait long, anxious moments while Warren’s reading began with an analysis of the history of the “separate but equal” doctrine, established by the Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896.

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High Court Rules against Segregation in Schools, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 17 May 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 17 May 1954, page 1

After what must have seemed an interminable wait, the attentive audience heard Warren say these words:

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

Segregation Ruling Poses Vast Problems for South, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 18 May 1954

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 May 1954, page 1

It may have taken a while to finally learn the Supreme Court’s decision—but it did not take anyone long to realize the historic implications of the ruling. At that time, 17 states had laws requiring segregated public schools, and another 4 permitted it. All 21 of those public school systems would now have to be changed.

Want to learn more? Explore over 2,000 news articles about the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case in our historical archives.