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.

Thurgood Marshall holds NAACP sign with other civil rights leaders
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 Surpreme Court photo of Thurgood Marshall
Official U.S. Supreme Court portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1976

Robert 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.”

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.