Our Archives department preserves LDF’s legacy and provides research assistance to TMI and LDF staff. TMI’s Archives staff manages an archival repository of LDF’s historic records, provides library services, and oversees information management.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall founded LDF in 1940 and served as its first director-counsel. He was the architect of the legal strategy that ended racial segregation in the United States of America. After a stint as a federal appeals judge in Manhattan and later as the first black solicitor general of the United States, Marshall became the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States. After nomination by President Lyndon B. Johnson and confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Marshall served as Associate Justice from 1967-1991. He retired from the bench in 1991 and passed away on January 24, 1993 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 84. Thurgood Marshall’s visionary legal work at the Legal Defense Fund was an unrivaled contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and helped change the arc of American history forever.

As a Supreme Court justice, he became increasingly dismayed and disappointed as the court’s majority retreated from remedies he felt were necessary to address remnants of Jim Crow. In his dissent in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a landmark affirmative action ruling, he wrote: "In light of the sorry history of discrimination and its devastating impact on the lives of Negroes, bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order. To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society."

In particular, Marshall fervently dissented in cases in which the Supreme Court upheld death sentences; he wrote over 150 opinions dissenting from cases in which the Court refused to hear death penalty appeals. Among Marshall’s salient majority opinions for the Supreme Court were: Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza, in 1968, which determined that a mall was “public forum” and thus was barred from excluding picketers; and Bounds v. Smith, which held that state prison systems must provide their inmates with “adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”

Marshall’s status as an architect of the Civil Rights Movement and an icon of American history is unquestioned. His legacy lives on at LDF, at the Thurgood Marshall Institute, and in the advocates, activists, and allies who seek to continue his work.

ldf legend

“What needs to be done at this time more than anything else is not legal action but social action…”

Thurgood Marshall

LDF is founded by Thurgood Marshall, its first Director-Counsel.

LDF takes on and wins equal pay for African-American and white public school teachers. (Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk)

In a case brought by LDF, the U.S. Supreme Court bans “white primaries,” which had excluded African-Americans from voting in Democratic primaries in Texas. (Smith v. Allwright)

LDF wins a case in which the Supreme Court strikes down a Virginia law requiring segregated seating on interstate buses. The ruling prompts Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to initiate the first Freedom Rides in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee to test this new ruling.

LDF wins a case in which the Supreme Court reverses a murder conviction obtained through a jury selection process that had systematically excluded African Americans from criminal juries for 30 years. (Patton v. Mississippi)

LDF brings cases that results in the Supreme Court ruling that a state cannot bar a Black student from its all-white law school on the ground that she had not asked the state to provide a separate law school for black students. (Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of California)

The Supreme Court rules that a separate law school, hastily established for Black students to prevent their admission to the all-white University of Texas Law School, is unequal, and therefore unconstitutional. (Sweatt v. Painter)

Thurgood Marshall argues the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court unanimously struck down public school segregation, ending the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Federal district court bars the University of Alabama from denying admission based on race, and the Supreme Court quickly affirms that decision. (Lucy v. Adams)

Supreme Court declares segregated seating on city buses unconstitutional, thereby ending the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. (Gayle v. Browder)

Supreme Court holds that a confession used to convict an African-American defendant was obtained in violation of the Constitution. (Fikes v. Alabama)

Thurgood Marshall appointed Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Supreme Court holds that the 1964 Civil Rights Act voids convictions of all lunch counter sit-in demonstrators. Hamm v. City of Rock Hill)

Thurgood Marshall is appointed US Solicitor General by President Lyndon Johnson.

Thurgood Marshall appointed Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court holds that the 1965 Voting Rights Act guarantees the opportunity to cast a write-in ballot. (Allen v. State Board of Elections)

Supreme Court upholds the use of busing as a tool to desegregate public schools. (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education)

Supreme Court upholds the right of prisoners to bring federal court actions challenging prison conditions. (Haines v. Kerner)

Supreme Court rules that the death penalty, as applied in 37 states, violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment. Under revised state laws, however, the Court permits U.S. executions to resume in 1977. (Furman v. Georgia)

Supreme Court affirms that at-large election of state legislators in North Carolina illegally diluted Black voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and it establishes basic principles for interpreting the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, which result in major increases in African-American elected officials nationwide. (Thornburg v. Gingles)

Supreme Court rejects a challenge to the constitutionality of Georgia’s death penalty, disregarding LDF’s compelling evidence that racial discrimination infects every aspect of the state’s capital punishment system. (McCleskey v. Kemp)

Thurgood Marshall retires from U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall dies (age 85).

District court grants the joint motion of LDF and the state of Tennessee to end nearly four decades of court-ordered desegregation of public colleges and universities in recognition of the state’s progress in creating a higher education system that preserves access and educational opportunity for Black and white students alike. (Geier v. Bredesen)

A class action lawsuit is filed against New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the City of New York challenging the NYPD’s practices of unlawful stops and arrests of NYCHA residents and their visitors for trespass without sufficient evidence and due to their race and/or ethnicity. (Davis v. City of New York)

Shelby County, Alabama filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. LDF intervened on behalf of Black residents of Shelby County whose voting rights were directly impacted by the county’s challenge. (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder)

Policing Reform Campaign established: The Policing Reform Campaign seeks to promote unbiased and responsible policing policies and practices at the national, state and local levels.

In 1997, Mr. Buck’s attorneys presented testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck was likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is Black. The prosecutor relied on this expert testimony to argue in favor of a death sentence. LDF presented oral argument before the Supreme Court. (Buck v. Davis)