10 Revolutionary Facts About Thurgood Marshall

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Before he became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was already a powerful civil rights pioneer: He argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court in his work as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the '40s and '50s. He won 29 of those cases, including landmark decisions about school segregation and voting rights. And although his name is synonymous with the civil rights battles of the 1950s, Marshall was also at the forefront of debates about police brutality, women’s rights, and the death penalty.

Over 50 years after his historic appointment to the nation’s highest court, Marshall is remembered both for his trailblazing work and for his big personality. (Justice Marshall was a devoted fan of Days of Our Lives and as solicitor general was known to “drink bourbon and tell stories full of lies” with President Lyndon Johnson.) Here are a few things to know about this civil rights hero and legal pioneer, who was born on this day 110 years ago.

1. HE WASN'T ALWAYS THURGOOD.

Thoroughgood Marshall was born in Maryland in 1908. Young Thoroughgood would eventually change his name to Thurgood. He once admitted, “By the time I reached the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that out and had shortened it to Thurgood.”

2. HE LEARNED ABOUT LAW FROM HIS FATHER.

As a child in Baltimore, Marshall developed an interest in the law when his father William, a country club steward, took him to observe legal arguments at local courts. Thurgood and his father then had lengthy discussions around the dinner table during which Thurgood’s father fought every statement his son made. Justice Marshall said of his father in 1965, “He never told me to be a lawyer, but he turned me into one.”

3. AS A YOUNG LAWYER, MARSHALL FOUGHT FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN TEACHERS TO BE PAID FAIRLY.

During his time at Lincoln University (where he graduated with honors in 1930), Marshall’s family struggled to afford the tuition. His mother, Norma, who worked as a teacher, pleaded each term with the university’s registrar to accept late payments, whenever she could scrape together enough money to pay the cost of attendance.

Marshall tackled equal pay for African-American teachers after he graduated from Howard University’s law school in 1933. Six years later, Marshall won a big victory for teachers like his mother, when a federal court struck down pay discrimination against African-American teachers in Maryland. Marshall went on to fight for teacher pay equality in 10 states across the South. And many of his most well-known legal battles were fought against discrimination in public education, like Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

4. HE WORKED A NIGHT JOB AT A BALTIMORE HEALTH CLINIC DURING SOME OF THE BIGGEST LEGAL BATTLES OF HIS EARLY CAREER.

Marshall fought to make ends meet as a young lawyer. In 1934, he took a second job at a clinic that treated sexually transmitted diseases. Marshall worked at the clinic even as he prepared for the landmark case to integrate the University of Maryland. When he moved to New York in 1936, Marshall did not officially quit his night job—he merely requested a 6-month leave of absence from the clinic, according to biographer Larry S. Gibson. But Marshall never returned to his night job. By 1940, he had become the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

5. MARSHALL RISKED HIS LIFE WHILE FIGHTING CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLES.

Marshall (far right) held up an NAACP sign with other leaders from the organization (from left to right) director of public relations Henry L. Moon, executive secretary Roy Wilkins, and labor secretary Herbert.Al. Ravenna, Library of Congress

While working for the NAACP in 1946, Marshall traveled to Columbia, Tennessee to defend a group of African-American men. Marshall and his colleagues feared for their safety after the trial and tried to leave town fast. But, according to biographer Wil Haygood, they were ambushed by locals on the road to Nashville. Marshall was arrested on false charges, placed in a sheriff's car, and driven quickly off the main road. His colleagues—who were told to keep driving to Nashville—followed the car, which then returned to the main road. Marshall said that he would have been lynched if not for the arrival of his colleagues.

6. HE WAS BOTH AN INFORMANT AND A SUBJECT OF AN FBI INVESTIGATION DURING THE RED SCARE.

In the 1950s, Marshall tipped off the FBI about communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP. But he was also the subject of FBI investigation, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI files, critics tried to connect Marshall to communism through his membership in the National Lawyers Guild, a group that was called "the legal bulwark of the Communist Party” by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Later, after he was nominated to the Supreme Court, Marshall’s opponents tried again to tie him to communism, but the FBI couldn't find any communist ties.

7. AFTER A ROCKY START, PRESIDENT KENNEDY APPOINTED MARSHALL TO HIS FIRST JUDICIAL ROLE.

President John F. Kennedy sent his brother Bobby to meet with Marshall about civil rights in 1961. But Marshall did not hit it off with the Kennedys and felt his experience on the topic was being discounted. According to Marshall, Bobby “spent all his time telling us what we should do.” Still, a few months later, Kennedy nominated Marshall to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. It took a year for the Senate to confirm his nomination, over the objection of several southern Senators.

8. PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON NOMINATED MARSHALL TO THE SUPREME COURT IN 1967, AFTER HE CREATIVELY ENGINEERED AN OPENING ON THE COURT.

In 1967, President Johnson wanted to put Marshall on the Supreme Court—but there wasn't a vacancy, so Johnson decided to do a little political maneuvering. According to the most common version of what happened, Johnson appointed Justice Tom Clark’s son, Ramsey, as the Attorney General, which made the elder Clark—who feared a conflict of interest—retire on June 12, 1967. Johnson officially nominated Marshall as his replacement the next day.

9. MARSHALL HAD TO UNDERGO AN INTENSE SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARING BEFORE TAKING HIS SEAT ON THE SUPREME COURT.

Marshall was sworn in to the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. But before he took the oath of office, he had to survive a grueling wait, as several senators from southern states worked to derail his nomination. For four days in July 1967, those senators questioned Marshall about his legal philosophy and imposed a quiz about political history, reminiscent of a Jim Crow-era literacy test. Marshall was subjected to more hours of questioning than any Supreme Court nominee before him. Finally, on August 30, the Senate voted to send him to the Supreme Court.

10. HIS LEGACY IS STILL DEBATED.

Official U.S. Supreme Court portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1976Robert S. Oakes, Library of Congress

Marshall had a perfect record of supporting affirmative action and opposing capital punishment during his tenure on the Supreme Court. But he grew frustrated with the Court in the 1980s and announced his retirement in 1991. Then, in 2010, President Barack Obama nominated one of Marshall’s former clerks to the Supreme Court. During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, senators questioned her connection to Marshall and criticized his record. But Kagan speaks fondly about Marshall: “This was a man who created opportunities for so many people in this country and improved their lives. I would call him a hero. I would call him the greatest lawyer of the twentieth century.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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