Thurgood Marshall Biography

Thurgood Marshall: A Trailblazer for Civil Rights

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. He served on the Court for almost two decades and played a critical role in shaping the court’s civil rights rulings.

Early Life and Education

Born in Baltimore, Marshall earned his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University and his law degree at Howard University. He was mentored by Charles Houston, a professor and leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Champion for Civil Rights

Marshall’s rise to prominence as a lawyer began in 1941 when he began working with the NAACP on segregation cases. Eventually, he became its chief counsel and helped shape several landmark civil rights decisions, most famously Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned “separate but equal” legal doctrine and desegregated public schools.

But he also argued many other civil rights cases before the courts and won 29 of them. As a young attorney, Marshall was devoted to challenging the social norms of his time and fighting for justice.

The South's Crucial Battleground

It’s hard to overstate how important it was for Marshall to be able to practice in the South, where there was an abundance of racial discrimination and harassment. He was a product of his environment, growing up in West Baltimore — home to the city’s thriving African-American community and, for a time, a strong branch of the NAACP.

He was a natural leader, and his mentor, Houston, taught him how to be a “social engineer” willing to use the law to fight for social change. As a result, Marshall was an expert litigator, and he used his legal expertise to win a number of key court cases that sped the civil rights movement forward.

Defending Justice

For example, in his early twenties, Marshall was called upon to defend a Black man accused of rape and attempted murder of a white woman. After a 16-hour interrogation, the man confessed to the crime. But he was ultimately cleared of the charge by a jury.

The Movie: An Exciting Storytelling

As Marshall, Chadwick Boseman is wildly charismatic. He evokes the effervescence of a brash lawyer with a fiery zeal and a lust for justice. He is a captivating, magnetic character, and the film does a good job of portraying him as an idealistic young lawyer who had to learn the ropes of being a lawyer in the South.

Director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Ladies Man) takes a slightly risky approach to the movie. Instead of focusing on the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that made Marshall’s name, the screenplay shifts to 1941, when he was just beginning his work for the NAACP.

It’s an interesting re-imagining of the trial. Instead of being the sole defendant in the case, as in Atticus Finch’s, Marshall is coached by Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad).

In the course of his trial, Marshall discovers that there are more complexities to the story than he originally realized. As he and Friedman dig into the evidence, they realize that there are things about Joseph Spell’s past that may have led to his guilt. And that he may have been a victim of racism and discrimination in the past, just like Eleanor Strubing.

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