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Thurgood Marshall: 20 Facts

Wikimedia Commons / Yoichi R. Okamoto

From prankster to first in his class, here are 20 things to know about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was a giant of the civil rights movement, and his impressive achievements number in the dozens. Here are 20 things to know about about the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.

1. Marshall was born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland, the great-grandchild of slaves. His great-grandfather had been born in Africa, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, before he was enslaved and brought to America.

2. Marshall’s given name was Thoroughgood. In second grade he shortened it because he didn’t like having to spell it.

3. After graduating high school near the top of his class, Marshall went to Lincoln University where he planned to study dentistry.

4. He was twice suspended for hazing and pranking other students.

5. Marshall's college classmates included Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, and the future president of Ghana. (As far as we know, none of them fell victim to Marshall’s antics, though Hughes later would describe young Marshall as “rough and ready, loud and wrong.”)

6. Marshall buckled down and got serious after meeting the woman who would become his wife. While still in college, he married Vivian Burey, also a student at Lincoln.

7. The once-future dentist graduated with honors – with a degree in literature and philosophy, not dentistry.

8. The University of Maryland was his top choice for law school, but he didn’t apply because of the school’s segregation policy. Instead, he studied law at Howard University, where he graduated first in his class.

9. Marshall’s first big civil rights victory as an attorney, Murray v. Pearson, was against the school he couldn’t attend, the University of Maryland. He successfully challenged U. of Maryland's segregation policy, opening the door to equal education for generations of Maryland students.

10. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought him on as legal counsel when he was still fresh out of law school. Within a few years, Marshall rose to become chief counsel for the NAACP.

11. He was just 32 when he won his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Chambers v. Florida, which established that confessions obtained as the result of police coercion didn’t count as evidence.

12. At the helm of the NAACP’s counsel, Marshall went on to argue many cases important to the civil rights movement – most notably the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall led the legal team that successfully argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court delivered a unanimous decision in favor of integration of schools, declaring that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

13. After the death of his wife, Vivian, in 1955, Marshall married Cecilia Suyat. Together they had two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John.

14. President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1961.

15. Marshall was friendly with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and encouraged collaboration between the NAACP and FBI.

16. In 1965 Marshall became the first black U.S. solicitor general, winning 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the nation.

17. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the first black person to hold the position. Of the nomination, Johnson said it was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.”

18. While he served on the Supreme Court, Marshall’s law clerks included future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

19. Marshall retired in 1991, and Clarence Thomas became the second black Supreme Court justice.

20. On Jan. 24, 1993, Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure at 84. A few months after his death, newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton awarded Marshall the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Originally published January 2013