1. He couldn't attend his local law school at the University of Maryland, because it barred blacks from attending.
After graduating cum laude from Lincoln University in 1930, Marshall wanted to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, just blocks from his home in Baltimore. Marshall instead attended Howard University School of Law, where he studied under Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black lawyer to win a case in front of the Supreme Court. Marshall graduated first in his class.
They got the last laugh: Just a few years later in 1936, Marshall and Houston teamed up to represent Donald Gaines Murray, a black student seeking to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, in a lawsuit against the school. They won.
2. He was asked by the United Nations and United Kingdom to help write the constitutions of Ghana and Tanzania.
After they won independence from European imperial powers, Ghana and Tanzania were in need of a constitution. The UN and UK asked Thurgood for help – they felt that his success fighting for America’s oppressed minority would help protect the rights of the minority white citizens in those nations. Both constitutions are still in use today.
3. Thurgood Marshall is the only justice to have represented a capital defendant at trial.
The Supreme Court has historically not been known for its diversity – in the 178 years before Justice Marshall was confirmed, it was populated by a procession of white protestant men, none of whom had ever defended someone charged with homicide.
His work as a traveling defense attorney for blacks accused of crimes in the Jim Crow South made him a staunch opponent of the death penalty – he saw firsthand how often the death penalty could be used on the wrongly accused. He brought his experience to the bench: While a Supreme Court Justice, his opinions in death penalty cases were some of his most forceful.
4. He represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.
Arguing before the nation’s highest court didn’t faze Thurgood. Before his nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, he served as Solicitor General; during that time, Thurgood Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. Combine that with his many wins at SCOTUS as a lawyer for the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (he argued 32 cases and won 29) and Thurgood holds a record that’s as unlikely to be broken as Steph Curry’s record for threes in a season.
5. He’s the subject of two upcoming movies.
Marshall was famously played by Laurence Fishburne in the HBO movie Thurgood, but he’s finally set to hit the silver screen in two upcoming films. One of his most high-profile cases – that of the Groveland Boys, four young black men who were convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white woman and sentenced to death before Thurgood took their appeal to the Supreme Court and won – is being turned into a movie slated for release in 2017. He is also the subject of a biopic, Marshall, that will focus on his early career. He will be played by Chadwick Boseman.
Bonus: He founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
Thurgood Marshall founded LDF in 1940. He fought under the LDF banner for his biggest wins, including Brown v. Board of Education. And he employed LDF as the legal arm of the Civil Rights Movement, defending the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and laying much of the legal groundwork for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Thurgood might be gone, but LDF continues to fight for Thurgood’s signature issues of criminal justice, economic justice, education, and political participation. Some of our current initiatives include a challenge of Texas’ racially biased Voter ID law; the defense of Duane Buck, a man sentenced to death because he is black (which the Supreme Court just agreed to hear in the fall); and a campaign for police reform in Ferguson, Charleston, and across the country.