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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I had the opportunity to hear RFK speak at Brigham Young University on March 27, 1968. The 1960s were difficult times – in 1968 – the Vietnam War was raging, RFK was challenging a sitting President LBJ for his party’s nomination, demonstrators were in all of the major cities. Less than a week following RFK’s talk Martin Luther King would be shot & killed. Two months after that RFK was shot and killed.

Kennedy’s remarks on campus were effective. He had done his homework; he had broken the ice and won over the respect of the packed arena. That fairly conservative campus was no longer his adversary but was ready to listen. He spoke briefly and took all questions. Tough questions. He was grilled but he was comfortable explaining his positions on the current state of the war and the country.

I clearly remember his opening remarks – with humor he reached out to his audience and showed respect for their history and beliefs. His actions and remarks echo in today’s headlines.

“Thank you very much. Thank you. I appreciate very much being here at this campus … I understand that this is a campus made up of all political persuasions. I had a very nice conversation with Dr. {Ernest L.} Wilkinson [laughter] … and I promised him that all Democrats would be off campus by sundown [laughter, applause].

But I feel very close to this state. Not only did part of my wife’s family live in the state of Utah for a long period of time, I traveled down your Green River…spent part of the time in the water (laughter) … part of my honeymoon here and I’ve had ten children since – so I have learned something from the Mormons [laughter].

I think that we still have a great deal in common, and in common with the man this university honors. For I too have a large family [laughter], I too have settled in many states [laughter]. And now I too know what it is to take on Johnson’s army. [Standing ovation, laughter and applause].” (Read the complete text at: Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol 3, Number 3, Autumn 1968).

The reference to “Johnson’s Army” was a reference to his taking on President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic Party Primaries as well as to President James Buchanan sending General Albert S. Johnston and his troops to quell the non-existent “Utah Rebellion” in 1857. This otherwise obscure reference was well known to BYU students schooled in Utah history. With this series of well thought out personal & historical references he won over the crowd.

After his remarks students crowded around to shake his hand. I was one of them. I was surprised at how short he was. I had always pictured him as over 6’ tall – but he was only 5’9” … shorter than I was then (but now that I am shrinking, I am catching up to him :)

(Photo courtesy BYU Archives).

I learned that day that it is important to see and hear a person speak for themselves – to take the measure of a man. I concluded that he was an honest man who believed in what he was doing and trying to accomplish. It was an honor to shake his hand that day – 27 March 1968.