OTD in History… October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall sworn in as first African American Supreme Court Justice
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, October 2, 1967, Chief Justice Earl Warren swears in Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice. President Lyndon Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court after Justice Tom Clark retired. On August 30, the Senate confirmed Marshall with a vote of 69 to 11 and 20 abstaining. Ten of the votes against Marshall came from Southerners, one Republican and nine Democrats, and one Northerner but not too far north, West Virginia. Senators concerns about Marshall claimed to be about his liberal judicial advocacy for civil rights but were about race. Still, Marshall garnered enough support to make history.
The grandson of slaves, Marshall first challenged segregated education when he applied to the University of Maryland Law School, only to be rejected. He graduated the African American college, Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. in 1933 at the top of his class. Marshall served as counsel and then chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1936 until 1961. Marshall argued 32 landmark desegregation cases in front of the Supreme Court winning 29, including Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 that ruled separate but equal educational institutions were unconstitutional, and they violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution ending the legality of segregation. In that case, Marshall argued, “This Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.”
On September 23, 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals where Southern Democrats opposed his confirmation. It took a year for the Senate to confirm Marshall to the judgeship, and the Senate confirmed Marshall on Sept. 11, 1962, with 54 to 16 vote. On July 13, 1965, Johnson nominated Marshall as Solicitor General of the United States, and the Senate confirmed him with a voice vote on Aug. 11, 1965.
With Justice Clark announcing his retirement, President Johnson who ensured the passage of the greatest civil rights legislation since Reconstruction with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 chose Marshall to replace him on the bench. Johnson told aides, “I want to do this job that Abraham Lincoln started.” While Johnson supposedly told Marshall “I’m nominating you because you’re a lot like me: bigger than life, and we come from the same kind of people.” (Haygood, 18)
On June 13, 1967, Johnson made history-nominating Marshall to the Supreme Court. In nominating Marshall, President Johnson expressed, “I believe he has already earned his place in history, but I think it will be greatly enhanced by his service on the Court. I believe he earned that appointment; he deserves the appointment. He is best qualified by training and by very valuable service to the country. I believe it is the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.”
Although the Senate confirmed Marshall twice before, some senators were reluctant to confirm a “judicial activist” to the court. During his confirmation hearings held on July 13, 14, 18, 19 and 24, Senators asked Marshall an unprecedented 571 questions about his past cases. Four Southerners including Committee Chairman James Eastland (D Miss.), John L. McClellan (D Ark.), Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R S.C.) questioned Marshall during his hearing. Much of the hearing focused on Marshall’s viewpoints on crime and cases in front of the courts, which Marshall refused to respond. On July 19, Eastland ventured into race, and asked Marshall if he was “prejudiced against the white people in the South.” Marshall responded, “No, not at all. I was brought up in the South, and I worked for white people all my life. Much of my practice has been in the South.”
On August 3, the committee majority recommended Marshall’s confirmation with a vote of 11 to5, stating, Marshall “demonstrated those qualities which we admire in members of our highest judicial tribunal: thoughtfulness, care, moderation, reasonableness, a judicial temperament, and a balanced approach to controversial and complicated national problems.” The five dissenting senators in the Judicial Committee, wrote, “It is clearly a disservice to the Constitution and the country to appoint a judicial activist to the Supreme Court at any time.”
On Aug 30, the Senate took six hours to debate Marshall’s nomination before confirming him. With Senator Sam Ervin a Northern Carolina Democrat claiming reluctance because he believed Marshall was “judicial activist who would bring the Court into an imbalance favoring liberal rulings,” instead of the real reason, Marshall’s race. Both the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D Mont.) and Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R Ill.) voted for Marshall.
After his confirmation, Marshall gave a statement, saying “I am greatly honored by the appointment and its confirmation. Let me take this opportunity to reaffirm my deep faith in this nation and its people, and to pledge that I shall ever be mindful of my obligation to the Constitution and to the goal of equal justice under law.” While Majority Leader Mansfield praised the newly minted associate justice, “Thurgood Marshall’s rise to the Supreme Court reaffirms the American ideal that what counts is what you are and not who you are or whom your antecedents may have been.” Marshall would go on to serve 24 years on the Supreme Court retiring in 1991.
According to Washington Post reporter Juan Williams in his book Thurgood Marshall, American Revolutionary, Marshall was the real leader of the civil rights movement. Williams claims, “Marshall’s lifework, then, literally defined the movement of race relations through the century…. Instead, Marshall was busy in the nation’s courtrooms, winning permanent changes in the rock-hard laws of segregation. He created a new legal landscape, where racial equality was an accepted principle. He worked in behalf of black Americans but built a structure of individual rights that became the cornerstone of protections for all Americans. Marshall’s triumphs led black people to speak of him in biblical terms of salvation.” (Williams, 13)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Haygood, Wil. Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Times Books, 1998.
Zelden, Charles L. Thurgood Marshall: Race, Rights, and the Struggle for a More Perfect Union. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.