Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter who later worked on the staff at an all-white country club. His mother, Norma Marshall, was a kindergarten teacher. One of William Marshall’s pastimes was to listen to cases at the local courthouses, occasionally taking his sons to watch the legal procedures and arguments presented. William Marshall and his two sons would spend time discussing and arguing the legal issues addressed, and William Marshall encouraged his sons to prove the point the attorneys were making. Thurgood Marshall said: “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don’t know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table.”
Thurgood Marshall attended Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School where he was an above-average but mischievous student. He called himself a “hell-raiser” and once was required to memorize the entire United States Constitution as a punishment. Upon graduating high school in 1925, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Marshall’s classmates at Lincoln include poet and author Langston Hughes, the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and musician Cab Caolloway. While attending Lincoln University, Marshall met and married his wife, Vivian Burey. Marshall graduated college in 1930 with honors. After graduation, Marshall applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Despite being overqualified academically, Marshall was denied admission due to his race. Marshall instead went to Howard University Law School, another historically black school. The dean of Howard University Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston, was a pioneering civil rights lawyer. Dean Houston instilled in his students the desire to apply the tenets of the Constitution to all Americans. Marshall graduated in 1933 as valedictorian of his class.
After graduating law school, Marshall briefly had his own practice but without any experience, failed to land any significant cases. In 1934, he began working for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his first case Murray v. Pearson, he sued the University of Maryland Law School on behalf of Donald Murrary, an African-American that had been denied entrance to the law school. Marshall won Murray v. Pearson in 1936 resulting in immediate integration. In 1936, Marshall began working as full time legal counsel for the NAACP. Over the following decades, Marshall argued and won a variety of cases, striking down many forms of legalized racism. Marshall defended and won cases before the Supreme Court including, Chambers v. Florida (1940), in which Marshall successfully defended four black men who had been convicted of murder based on confessions coerced from the police and Smith v. Allwright, in which the Court struck down the Democratic Party’s use of the whites-only primary elections in various Southern states. The greatest victory of Marshall’s civil rights career was in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Brown v. Board of Education declared the laws establishing separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional, overturning the separate but equal doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson.