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The Historical Thurgood Marshall

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

By Liz Armstrong 

“If we don’t examine this history, we will forget how far we’ve come,” said Derek Charles Livingston, who is playing the role of Thurgood Marshall in this season’s one-man play Thurgood. “While I love being a student of history, it’s a hard history to go to because it’s injustice after injustice that were levied against men that look like me—which gives me an added responsibility as an actor to tell that story because it is part of our history.”

So what is the story of Thurgood Marshall?

“A lot of people know Thurgood as the first African-American Supreme Court justice, but many don’t know his history beyond that,” said Livingston, who is also the Festival’s interim artistic director. “Part of the reason he got to that position was because of the dramatic impact he had on our country and the advancement of equality and civil rights in the United States, and he was a leader in that.”

Thoroughgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. In second grade, he shortened his given name to just “Thurgood.”

Marshall’s law journey began at the dinner table with his father. His dad loved listening to cases at the courthouse, returning home to discuss the lawyers’ arguments with his sons. “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don’t know,” Marshall said. “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.”

He married Vivian Burey the year before graduating with honors from Lincoln University in 1930. Marshall went on to attend law school at Howard University, although he applied to the University of Maryland first, where he was rejected because he was black. He ranked first in his class at Howard and received his degree in 1933. 

“He did a lot through his work as an attorney representing his clients even before he became a justice,” Livingston said. “He went into court all across the country and fought for the lives of mostly black men who had been unjustly accused of heinous crimes—and he did his best to stop them being put to death.” 

Straight out of law school, Marshall began a private practice of law in Baltimore. He went on to become a staff lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became the lead chair in 1938. Two years later, he became the chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

In 1955, his wife passed away, and he married his secretary Cecilia Suyat shortly after. 

He was an exceptional attorney, winning 90 percent of the cases he argued before the Supreme Court. Some of the most well-known include Smith v. Allwright (1944), Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). Perhaps the most famous was the case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which found that laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional—a major civil rights victory.

President John F. Kennedy nominated him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on September 23, 1961, but southern senators delayed his confirmation until September 11, 1962. President Lyndon B. Johnson then nominated him as solicitor general and pressured Southern senators not to obstruct his confirmation again, and Marshall was quickly confirmed on August 11, 1965.

President Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court on June, 13, 1967. He faced harsh criticism from some southern senators, but the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination by an 11-5 vote on August 3. On August 30, after six hours of debate the full senate voted 69-11 to confirm Marshall, and he became the first African-American to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. He served on the court until 1991 when he retired. 

During his service on the Supreme Court, Marshall participated in over 3,400 cases and authored 322 majority opinions. He served until 1991, when he retired. He passed away on January 25, 1993 at the age of eighty-four. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Thurgood, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, previews September 14 and opens September 16 in the Anes Studio Theatre. It runs through October 8. Tickets can be purchased online at bard.org/plays/thurgood or by calling 800-PLAYTIX

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