Today is the anniversary of Justice Thurgood Marshall’s swearing-in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. He was the Court’s 96th justice and the first African American to hold a seat on the Supreme Court.
President Lyndon Johnson nominated the then-Solicitor General Marshall on June 13, 1967 to fill the post vacated by Justice Tom Clark. When Johnson nominated Marshall, he said it was “…the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.” Attorney General Ramsey Clark said that Justice Marshall had “…a wealth of legal experience rarely equalled in the history of the court. He has been a distinguished leader of the American Bar since finishing at the top of his class at Howard Law School in 1933—as one of the few attorneys in history to appear before the Court more than 50 times, as a member of the nation’s second highest court, and as Solicitor General of the United States. I have no doubt that his future contributions will add even more prominence to his already well-established place in American history.”
President Johnson was confident in his choice, and the Senate had few dissenting opinions, nearly all from Senators from the Deep South. After spending nearly half of July debating his nomination, the Senate confirmed Marshall as an associate justice by a vote of 69–11 on August 30, 1967.
Justice Marshall was sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren, with Marshall’s wife Cecelia and sons Thurgood Jr. and John attending. Although Johnson could not be present at Marshall’s ceremony, the remarks Johnson made a few years earlier at Justice Marshall’s swearing-in as Solicitor General are equally apt for Marshall’s swearing-in as Justice. Johnson observed, “Thurgood Marshall symbolizes what is best about our American society: the belief that human rights must be satisfied through the orderly processes of law. … it is a cause of profound satisfaction to me that in [then-] Judge Marshall we shall have an advocate whose lifelong concern has been the pursuit of justice for his fellow man.” Johnson also noted, “Marshall is already in the front ranks of the great lawyers of this generation. He has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court; he has won 29 of them. And that is a batting average of .900.”
Justice Marshall served on the Court for 24 years, retiring in 1991 due to ill health. During his tenure at the Court, he was known as “the Great Dissenter” due to the large number of dissenting opinions that he wrote and his strong stance for civil rights, minorities, the poor, and privacy, and against the death penalty. He also had a reputation for biting humor. (About one public official, Marshall observed: “It’s said that if you can’t say something good about a dead person, don’t say it. Well, I consider him dead.”) The year he retired from the Court, he donated his papers, including his correspondence, case files, dockets, and other papers from the Court, to the Library of Congress. He died of heart failure in 1993.
Marshall’s legacy was such that many governments and institutions have honored him by erecting statues and naming buildings after him. In Marshall’s native Maryland, the city of Baltimore put up a statue in his honor in front of the federal courthouse, and there is a statue of him in front of the Maryland State House; the State of Maryland has named their international airport after him. Near Union Station in Washington, D.C., the Federal Judiciary Building is named for him. He was a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.