Monday, January 21, 2013


Since it's Martin Luther King Day, we'll use this post to talk about someone who helped set the stage for Dr King's work, Thurgood Marshall (1908-93).  Marshall, and his colleagues at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), developed the legal strategy which over a period of 20 years eventually led to Brown v Board of Education (1954), a case argued by Marshall, who won 29 of the 32 cases he argued at the Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, the son of a railroad porter and a teacher who instilled in him the importance of education.  Originally intending to be a dentist when he went to college he became involved in desegregation efforts and decided to switch to law.  He wanted to attend the University of Maryland Law School but could not because blacks were barred from admission and instead went to Howard University School of Law.  A decade later he was the lead lawyer on the lawsuit in which the Maryland courts ruled the University of Maryland's admission policy unconstitutional.

In 1936, while still in private practice he began working with the NAACP and became it's Chief Counsel in 1940.  The NAACP's strategy was to use the law and the Constitution to case by case win incremental victories that would ultimately lead to the overturning of Plessy v Ferguson (1896).

Marshall argued and won critical cases including:

Chambers v Florida (1940) overturning Florida murder convictions against four blacks on the grounds their confessions were compelled.  

Smith v Allwright (1944) which overturned the Democratic Party's use of all-white primaries in Texas and in other states.

Shelley v Kraemer (1948) which decided that racial covenants were unenforceable in real estate.

Sweatt v Painter (1950) which ruled that the racial bar on admission to the University of Texas Law School was unconstitutional.

McLauren v Oklahoma State Regents (1952) where the Court found that public institutions of higher learning could not provide different treatment to a student solely based on race.

It is a tribute to Marshall and his colleagues and the resiliency of our legal system and the principles set forth in the Constitution that the strategy succeeded.  When Dr King began his work in 1955 there was still much to do but the legal foundation had been established.

And if you are looking for a good book on Dr King and the civil rights movement the essential reading is Parting The Waters: America In The King Years (1954-63) by Taylor Branch.

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