UPDATED: 11:45 p.m. ET, July 1, 2021
Originally published Aug. 30, 2018
July 2nd marks the birthday of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He would have turned 113 years old if he was still alive. Luckily, Marshall’s memory lives on, even as the current iteration of the Supreme Court embraces its conservative majority and helps to dismantle what remains of America’s democracy.
If Marshall was alive, not only would have voted on Thursday against the Supreme Court’s decision along ideological to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that disproportionately affects Black people, but he also likely would have written one of his many brilliant dissents to emphasize his opposition to the modern-day voter suppression tactics.
Marshall’s quotes were something to behold, and many times they originated in one of his famous dissents. Like in 1978 when Marshall waxed poetic about the University of California v. Bakke decision that ruled in favor of upholding affirmative action race-based college admissions. However, the ruling also eliminated racial quotas, something that could limit the number of Black people admitted to schools.
It was in that context that Marshall vehemently dissented with a legendary quote that remains relevant nearly a quarter of a century later.
“The experience of Negroes in America has been different in kind, not just in degree, from that of other ethnic groups,” Marshall wrote in his dissent. “These differences in the experience of the Negro make it difficult for me to accept that Negroes cannot be afforded greater protection under the Fourteenth Amendment where it is necessary to remedy the effects of past discrimination.”
It’s hard to imagine that kind of foresight from Clarence Thomas, the sole Black representation on the Supreme Court now.
Marshall was confirmed as the first Black Supreme Court Justice on Aug. 30, 1967, after President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him to fill the seat of retiring Justice Tom Clark. Sixty-nine senators voted to confirm the Baltimore native and 11 were opposed.
Marshall was on the court for 24 years and retired in 1991. The deeply conservative Thomas, who critics have described as Marshall’s antithesis, was nominated for and controversially confirmed to fill the vacant seat.
Marshall died on Jan. 24, 1993, at the age of 84.
The U.S. could finally get another Black justice soon. Pressure has been mounting for Justice Stephen Breyer, who is 85, to retire. If he does, that would leave the door open for President Joe Biden to make good on his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
Keep reading to find some of Thurgood Marshall’s most powerful and life-changing quotes.