Thurgood Marshall is an American hero. His work as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. civil rights movement. As the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he was a persuasive advocate for a living and breathing Constitution that sees beyond the prejudices of revolutionary America.
If Marshall were alive, I have no doubt that he would place criminal justice reform high among the urgent priorities of today’s civil rights movement, and that his would be a powerful voice for change. It is for these reasons that I chose to name The Marshall Project in his honor. — Neil Barsky, founder of The Marshall Project
T hurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a towering figure in the civil rights movement and the first African American justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Before joining the court in 1967, he worked as a civil rights lawyer, famously criss-crossing the South on behalf of black clients who were facing Jim Crow justice from white police officials, prosecutors, judges and juries. In 1940, at age 32, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and served as an executive there for two decades. He and his colleagues won a series of Supreme Court victories that gradually eroded the "separate but equal" doctrine, the legal underpinning of segregation in America. The most famous of those cases was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that declared unconstitutional segregation in the nation's public schools.
Nominated by President Lyndon Johnson, and confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 69-11, Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years until his retirement at the end of the 1991 term. During his tenure, he was known for his strong support of First Amendment principles and was a reliable vote against the death penalty, even though he often said he was personally not opposed to capital punishment. He frequently sided with his fellow Warren Court jurists in seeking to protect and expand the constitutional rights of citizens charged with crimes, and he became a frequent dissenter during his later years as the Court moved rightward. The leader of that conservative shift, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, spoke at Marshall's funeral in 1993:
“As a result of his career as a lawyer and as a judge, Thurgood Marshall left an indelible mark, not just upon the law, but upon his country. Inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court building are the words ‘Equal justice under law.’ Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”