Thurgood Marshall: The NAACP Years

Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993)

Thurgood Marshall: Early Years

Thurgood Marshall: On the Bench

In 1934, Marshall volunteered his legal services to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1935, he won his first case for the NAACP by persuading the Maryland Court of Appeals to order the University of Maryland Law School to admit its first African American applicant. By 1936, the national NAACP had taken notice of Marshall, and he joined the organization’s national legal staff in the role of assistant special counsel to the NAACP. This began Marshall’s series of legal battles to persuade the local, state, and federal courts to overrule the “separate but equal” doctrine that the U.S. Supreme Court had enunciated in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. Marshall’s long association with the NAACP and appointment as assistant special counsel was the beginning of many milestones in his legal career.

Under the direction of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund adopted a strategy of attrition against the concept of separate but equal facilities in education. Beginning with its attack on segregated public professional schools and colleges and proceeding to elementary and high school education, Marshall and his staff sought to erode the basis of discrimination by advocating for equality not only in tangible facilities, but also in intangible factors. Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that it was impossible for a state to provide equality in such intangible features as the prestige of an institution, the quality of faculty, and the reputation of degrees for African Americans in separate schools.

Marshall and the NAACP sought to prove the inconsistency of the separate but equal doctrine itself and compel the Supreme Court to re-examine the constitutionality of the doctrine of separate but equal educational facilities. Turning from specific discrimination to racial segregation, Marshal argued that the doctrine of separate but equal was without legal foundation or social justification. The result of this strategy was the overturning of the separate but equal doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

In the decade following Brown, Marshall and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund challenged local and state actions upholding separate but equal policies and practices. They argued that Brown had to be construed and applied to other areas of state activity besides education, that the separate but equal policy had no place in the area of legitimate state responsibility, including the use of public facilities. After countless court battles, Marshall grew weary of arguing cases and believed that state legislation was sorely needed to advance equality for all persons.