August 30, 2010
Forty-three years ago today, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice by a vote of 69-11. But despite the lopsided Senate vote, his nomination battle had dragged on for most of that summer.
Thurgood Marshall had served as the NAACP’s chief litigator for nearly three decades, arguing 32 cases before the Supreme Court – and prevailing in all but three.
In 1954, Marshall argued Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court case in which racial segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional. Other cases argued by Marshall on behalf of the NAACP included
- Smith v. Allwright (1944), which ruled that exclusion of African-American voters from state primary elections was unconstitutional;
- Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which ruled against state judicial enforcement of racial “restrictive covenants” in housing; and
- Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), two cases in which the concept of “separate but equal” state university facilities for black professionals and graduate students was deemed unconstitutional.
Marshall’s reputation as a skilled and successful fighter for civil rights made him the target of the segregationist faction within the Senate. Among his Senate foes were Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who urged the FBI to investigate whether Marshall had any ties to the Communist party, and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who once ran for president as a segregationist.
Thurmond’s main tactic was to question Marshall at length in search of responses that he could use to paint the nominee as unqualified. At one point, Thurmond asked Marshall to name the members of the committee that had drafted the 14th Amendment. When Marshall replied that he didn’t know their names, Thurmond called Marshall a “stupid guy.” Then Ted Kennedy turned to Thurmond and asked him the same question. “I’ll let you know,” Thurmond replied.
By the time the confirmation came up for a vote, Marshall’s landslide victory was assured – mainly because Lyndon Johnson had convinced 20 segregationist senators to abstain. Marshall was sworn in two days later and served in the Supreme Court until 1991, cementing his stature as a giant of the civil rights movement.
“Martin Luther King Jr., with his preachings of love and non-violent resistance, and Malcolm X, the fiery street preacher who advocated a bloody overthrow of the system, are both more closely associated in the popular mind and myth with the civil rights struggle,” author Juan Williams wrote in his book, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. “But it was Thurgood Marshall, working through the courts to eradicate the legacy of slavery and destroying the racist segregation system of Jim Crow, who had an even more profound and lasting effect on race relations than either of King or X.”