Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908, to Norma Arica and William Canfield Marshall. Marshall’s mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father was an amateur writer who worked as a dining-car waiter on a railroad, later becoming a chief steward at a ritzy club. When Marshall’s father had a day off, he would occasionally take his sons to court so they could watch the legal procedure and arguments presented. Afterwards, the three would debate legal issues and current events together. Marshall’s father would challenge his sons on the points they made, constantly encouraging them to prove their case.
Growing up in Baltimore, Marshall experienced the racial discrimination that shaped his passion for civil rights early on. The city had a death rate for African-Americans that was twice that of Caucasians, and due to school segregation, Marshall was forced to go to an all-black grade school. Once, he was unable to use the bathroom because all public restrooms were reserved for whites.
He was often mischievous and sent out of class to read the Constitution for misbehavior. When Marshall graduated high school in 1925, he knew the Constitution backwards and forwards. Marshall was accepted to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, from where his brother had just graduated. It was known as the black counterpart to Princeton, and one of his classmates was the famous writer Langston Hughes.
After being denied by his first choice, the University of Maryland Law School, due to the color of his skin, Marshall decided to go to Howard University. He and his wife moved in with his parents, and his mother sold her wedding ring to help pay for his law school. There he learned about civil rights law and began to think of the Constitution as a living document. His mentors introduced him to the world of the NAACP, often bringing him to attend meetings and watch lawyers discuss key issues. One of the mentors who made the biggest impression upon Marshall was Charles Houston, who taught him to defeat racial discrimination through the use of existing laws. Marshall graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1933 and moved back to Baltimore.
He began to develop his style as he took cases dealing with police brutality, evictions and harsh landlords. Marshall was respectful but forceful in presenting his case. As his name began to gain notice, he earned big clients such as labor organizations, building associations, and corporations. Marshall started to volunteer with the NAACP and eventually became one of their attorneys, joining his mentor Houston to argue cases together. He won his first case arguing that the University of Maryland Law School should allow an African-American admission. In 1935, Houston got Marshall appointed as Assistant Special Counsel for New York in the organization. From then on, the two began planning on how to have the Supreme Court overrule the separate but equal doctrine. Marshall took over as Special Counsel in 1938, he traveled to dangerous areas in the South in order to investigate lynching, the denial of voting rights, jury service, and fair trials to African-Americans. The face of the NAACP had soon become that of Marshall’s. He won his first Supreme Court case dealing with forced confession and in 1952 argued Brown v. Board of Education. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Marshall as federal judge to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Marshall spent four years on the court, and none of his opinions were reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court. In 1965, President Johnson called upon Marshall to be the country’s next Solicitor General. Marshall was sworn into office, but only spent two years in the position. In 1967, the President appointed him as the first African-American to be an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.