“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” – Bro. Thurgood Marshall
If ever there was a man who represented the core tenets of Freemasonry – Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth – it was Thurgood Marshall. Marshall is famous for being the first African American justice of the Supreme Court, but his legacy and influence on our culture are so much greater than that. Brother Marshall had an astute legal mind and ardently voiced his support for civil rights and the policies needed to achieve them. The America he was born into was quite different from the one he left behind, and to say he had a small role in our nation’s growth and progress would be to sell him short.
He was an attorney of much renown, a Supreme Court justice of 24-years, an activist, and a Prince Hall Freemason, belonging to Coal Creek Lodge #88 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here we journey through the inspirational life, career, and legacy of Thurgood Marshall.
Thoroughgood Marshall was born on June 2, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter, and his mother, Norma, was a teacher. Young Marshall was named after his great-grandfather, but the unusual name invited taunting from his friends. At only age 6, to avoid the teasing, young Marshall changed his name to Thurgood.
Thurgood’s parents were passionate about the United States Constitution and instilled in him an appreciation for the legal system when he was just a boy. As a child, his father took him to watch court cases to learn the art of debate. The family would later debate the cases and other current events around the dinner table, allowing Thurgood to hone the skills that would make him a prolific lawyer later in life. He said his father taught him to be a lawyer by “teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point,[and] by making me prove every statement I made.”
Despite the effort of his parents to shield him from the harsh realities being black in the early 1900s, Marshall experienced racial discrimination throughout his youth. At this time, the city of Baltimore had a death rate for African Americans that was twice as high as that of Caucasians. His personal experiences, such as being unable to use all-white restrooms and attending a segregated all-black school, shaped his passion for civil rights. In grade school, Thurgood was a talented student who placed in the advanced classes. He graduated high school a year early in 1925 and went on to attend Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania.
The fight for civil rights
After Thurgood graduated, he applied to the University of Maryland School of Law but was rejected because he was black. Instead, he attended law school at Howard University, graduating first in his class in 1933. Once he earned his degree, Harvard University offered him a postgraduate scholarship, but he declined, opting instead to open a private practice in Baltimore. Notably, several clients approached Thurgood for help despite not being able to pay. In the true spirit of a Freemason, he turned none away and did what he could.
Soon, the young man affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1935, still his first year as an attorney, Marshall represented the NAACP in the pivotal law school discrimination suit Murray v. Pearson. This lawsuit brought by the local NAACP challenged the University of Maryland Law School over its segregation policy, accusing the school of violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws by denying an African American applicant admission to its law school solely on the basis of race. Marshall and NAACP won the lawsuit, paving the way for his battle to end racial segregation in America.
He soon brought lawsuits that integrated other state universities and in 1936 he became the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, challenging the board to pursue cases that would strike at the heart of segregation. In 1938, Marshall took the helm of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF), arguing for pivotal cases such as Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education. Thurgood won these cases, which were instrumental in starting to dismantle Jim Crow laws in higher education. Ultimately, Marshall argued one of the most critical cases in our nation’s history in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Winning this case in the Supreme Court resulted in the declaration that segregating public schools is unconstitutional.
In 1957, LDEF, led by Marshall, became an entirely separate entity from the NAACP with its own leadership and board of directors and has remained a separate organization to this day. As a lead legal architect of the civil rights movement, Marshall constantly traveled to small scorching courtrooms throughout the south. At one point, he oversaw as many as 450 simultaneous cases. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged a whites-only primary election in Texas in addition to a case in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that barred blacks from buying or renting homes could not be enforced in state courts.
Court of Appeals and tenure as Solicitor General
His success in the courtroom and his passionate, tireless fight to ensure all citizens’ civil rights caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1961, although ten southern senators delayed Marshall’s confirmation for more than eight months. On September 11, 1962, and after five hours of floor debate, the Senate confirmed Marshall by a 56–14 vote.
He spent the next three years on the Court of Appeals, authored 98 majority opinions, none of which were reversed by the Supreme Court, as well as 8 concurrences and 12 dissents. In 1965, he was made Solicitor General by President (and fellow Freemason) Lyndon B. Johnson. In this role, Thurgood became responsible for arguing Supreme Court cases on behalf of the United States government.
Marshall’s appointment as Solicitor General was generally considered a precursor to his position on the Supreme Court appointment. Nevertheless, Thurgood was as effective in this role as ever, winning fourteen of the nineteen Supreme Court cases he argued. Of his time as Solicitor General Marshall later said it was, “the most effective job” and, “maybe the best” job he ever had.
The highest court in the land
In 1967, Johnson appointed Brother Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for 24 years until his retirement in 1991. President Johnson said nominating Marshall was, “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.” Ever the liberal mind, Justice Marshall spent his many years on the court fighting for societal and political progress. He staunchly supported upholding individual rights, expanding civil rights, and limiting the scope of criminal punishment.
Although Marshall held significant influence over the court in his early years as a justice, the court eventually shifted towards conservatism. In the later years of his tenure, Marshall remained as strong in his convictions as ever but his influence waned. He was reluctant to retire despite being politically isolated and entering his eighties, notably repeating, “I was appointed to a life term, and I intend to serve it.” Eventually, bad health forced his hand, and the justice retired from the court in 1991 and was succeeded by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
Freemasonry and legacy
Although many of the details of his time as a Freemason are limited, we do know that Brother Thurgood Marshall was a member of Coal Creek Lodge No. 88 of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Oklahoma. He was director and counselor of the Prince Hall Grand Master’s Conference and was a 33° AASR Prince Hall.
Marshall argued a record-breaking 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them throughout his career. He represented and won more cases before the high court than any other person. Throughout his term as Supreme Court justice, Thurgood remained a zealous supporter for individual and civil rights guided by his policies and decisions. Through his accomplishments in the courtroom – both as a lawyer and a judge – he shaped the course of our nation through challenging social policies and upholding laws protecting minorities.
Brother Marshall passed away from heart failure in 1993, at the age of 84. He laid in repose in the Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court so his admirers and colleagues could pay their respects and was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. As his flag-draped casket laid in state, he became just the second justice to receive this honor. He left behind his wife, Cecilia, and their two sons, Thurgood and John.
Want to read about other Masons in politics? Read our bios on Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and FDR!