Thurgood Marshall’s Journey: From Segregated Law School to Supreme Court Justice

NDAA Black History Month Series: Celebrating Pioneering Figures in Justice

The indelible mark Thurgood Marshall left on American jurisprudence and civil rights cannot be overstated. As the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Marshall’s journey from a Baltimore student facing systemic discrimination to a pivotal figure in the legal fight for equality exemplifies the profound impact of strategic litigation and relentless advocacy.

NAACP leaders Henry L. Moon, Roy Wilkins, Herbert Hill, and Thurgood Marshall (far right) in 1956

Born into the harsh realities of America’s Jim Crow Era in 1908, Marshall’s early experiences with overt racism, including being denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School due to his race, catalyzed his lifelong commitment to justice. It was at Howard University Law School, under the mentorship of Charles Hamilton Houston, that Marshall’s legal acumen began to flourish. Houston’s strategic approach to dismantling segregation through the courts profoundly influenced Marshall, underscoring the critical role of legal education and mentorship in shaping civil rights litigation strategies. [1]

Marshall (center), George Edward Chalmer Hayes, and James Nabrit congratulate one another after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

As the NAACP’s chief counsel, Marshall embarked on a career that would transform the American legal landscape. From challenging segregated train car conditions to arguing for the rights of wrongly accused Black men in Southern courts, he navigated hostile environments where his very life was often at risk. His culminating legal battle Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) desegregated public schools, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537(1896). His arguments in Brown showcased his ability to leverage legal precedent and social science research to challenge the status quo, a tactic that has since inspired countless legal professionals in civil rights advocacy. [2] Marshall’s win proved the law’s immense capacity for societal change and laid the groundwork for dismantling institutional racism across the United States.

Marshall meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office of the White House on the day that Marshall was nominated by Johnson to serve on the Supreme Court.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s historic 1967 appointment of Marshall to the Supreme Court shattered a deeply entrenched racial barrier. As a Justice, Marshall became the voice of legal conscience, defending those often forgotten by society. His tenure on the Supreme Court was marked by a steadfast commitment to individual rights, free speech, and opposition to the death penalty. Marshall’s opinions often reflected a deep empathy for the marginalized and the impact of their decisions on vulnerable communities. [3] However, Marshall’s career was not without controversy and criticism. His pragmatic approach to legal strategy and his decisions on the bench sometimes sparked debate among scholars and contemporaries.

Official portrait of Thurgood Marshall, 1976

The legacy of Thurgood Marshall extends beyond his legal victories; his mentorship and influence on younger lawyers and civil rights advocates are profound. Marshall’s commitment to education and mentorship mirrored that of his mentor, Houston, underscoring the importance of passing on legal knowledge and activism to future generations. [4] Additionally, his work paved the way for further advancements in gender and racial equality, highlighting the need for continued advocacy at the intersection of civil rights.

Beyond courtroom victories and judicial pronouncements, Thurgood Marshall’s greatest legacy lies in demonstrating the law’s transformative power in advancing human dignity and social change. His life and work continue to inspire prosecutors to pursue justice with tenacity, strategic acumen, and a deep commitment to equality. As we reflect on Marshall’s contributions, let us strive to embody the principles he championed, ensuring that our legal system upholds the dignity and rights of all individuals.

Coming Soon, Feb. 22: Next in our series, we’re profiling Eunice Carter, one of the first African American female prosecutors.

The National District Attorneys Association is committed to supporting and promoting prosecutors of diverse backgrounds. Learn more about the steps our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is taking to support prosecutors in the field.


  1. Mack, Kenneth W. “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.” Harvard University Press, 2012.
  2. Kluger, Richard. “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.
  3. Tushnet, Mark V. “I Dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases.” Beacon Press, 2008.
  4. Williams, Juan. “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.” Times Books, 1998.



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