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Significance of Thurgood Marshall in Helping Black Americans Gain Improved Civil Rights in the USA in the Period 1947-1967

Thurgood Marshall was the first to tackle segregation in the USA by directly tackling laws enforcing segregation. For this reason, he was hugely significant in bringing about change through legislative advancements. He won 29 out of 32 cases throughout his career, highlighting his huge significance as a lawyer. My sources focus on Marshall’s legislative achievements from 1947 to 1967 and his significance as inspiration for others to stand up to segregation. There is some disagreement, however, over how significant the changes Marshall achieved were. Sources 1, 2 and 5 provide evidence that Marshall’s legislative gains were invaluable to the civil rights movement in chipping away at the foundations of segregation in the USA. To some extent, sources 6, 7 and 2 provide evidence diminishing Marshall’s significance in reducing racial discrimination through his victories in the Supreme Court. These sources also provide evidence that Marshall’s refusal to condone the violent methods of groups such as the black panthers meant he limited the amount such groups could achieve, therefore limiting the significance of Marshall himself.

Source 5 provides primary evidence of Marshall’s significance through his victories in the Supreme Court. In the source, Marshall states that “He has been working tirelessly to get things moving toward implementing the decision,” showing that Marshall himself believed he had been instrumental in achieving victory in the brown case. This provides evidence of Marshall’s significance in achieving victory in the Brown vs. Topeka case landmark. Source 1 agrees and states that “Marshall was a towering presence,” and this trait helped him to achieve a “triumphant victory” in the Brown vs. Topeka case in 1954. Source 2 agrees and says that Marshall’s victory in Brown vs. Topeka was “the turning point from which legal basis for segregation in America was destroyed.” However, despite this, source 2 also provides evidence of limitations to the true significance of the Brown vs. Topeka case, stating that “less than 6 percent of black children in the south attended integrated schools” following the Brown decision, which is a disagreement with Wesley which states that Brown “ended fifty years of school segregation.”

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However, despite Sources 1, 5 and 2 seemingly portraying Marshall’s achievements as unquestionably significant, not all the sources agree. Source 6 provides evidence of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s significance, as three of his colleagues state their beliefs that Warren was the main reason the Brown case succeeded. In the letter, Warren’s colleagues state that “Warren must take the credit” for the Brown victory, with no mention of Marshall, suggesting that Warren was key to the success of the Brown case. Source 5 provides evidence to agree with 6. In the letter to Levy, Marshall states that “victory, in this case, was a combined effort of literally tens of thousands of people,” showing that Marshall himself does not believe he was the sole instigator of success in the case. Source 2 provides further evidence to agree with 5 and 6, stating that “Warren had persuaded Justice Stanley Reed to vote with the majority so the Brown ruling would be unanimous.” This provides disagreement with source 1, which states that “Marshall was the key figure behind the Brown victory.”

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As well as instigating change through directly tackling segregation, Marshall was also significant as a public figure and a role model to others, aided by his confidence. Source 4 provides primary evidence of Marshall’s confident personality. The photo shows Marshall in the Whitehouse laughing with President Johnson, following his appointment to the US Supreme Court. Source 2 supports this and states that it was “Marshall’s style to apply pressure and fight even in the face of adversity,” highlighting Marshall’s fortitude of character. Source 2 also states Marshall “brought achieving equality to the forefront of black Americans’ desires,” highlighting his significance as a role model to others. Finally, source 3 provides insight from someone who knew Marshall’s personality first-hand. Melba Patillo attended Little Rock High School following its desegregation enforced by the Brown vs. Topeka ruling. Source 3 states Marshall inspired her to attend Little Rock school when her mind was “filled with doubt and worry” about attending.

Source 3 also says that Marshall’s “Self assured air, commanding presence and confident tone” made her believe that she “deserved to be admitted to Little Rock High,” and in this way, it agrees with Source 2 and 4 about Marshall’s strong character being key to his success, and also shows his significance as a role model to others. Source 4 also shows that President Johnson respected Marshall and thought he was worthy of the Supreme Court. Source 2’s account of the moment when President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court provides evidence to agree with source 4. Source 2 states that “For nearly an hour a giddy Marshall joked around,” showing that Marshall was not intimidated by the occasion. Source 2 also quotes Marshall as saying, “The president of the United States told me that he thought I was the best person at the time to represent the United States,” showing that Johnson respected Marshall’s skills as a lawyer and believed him to be the obvious choice for filling the vacancy in the US Supreme Court. In this position of power, Marshall could help to force the issue of civil rights further.

However, despite Sources 1, 2, 3 and 4 all providing evidence that Marshall’s personality was key to his success, disagreement over Marshall’s personality and its influence on others are provided by sources 2 and 7 to some extent, with both providing evidence that to some extent Marshall’s stubbornness and bold personality even inhibited the achievements of others. Source 7 provides evidence of Marshall denouncing those advocating the use of violent methods to try to achieve change. In the source, Marshall states, “Lawlessness is lawlessness. Anarchy is anarchy is anarchy. Neither race nor colour nor frustration is an excuse for either lawlessness or anarchy,” again showing Marshall’s strong views that violent methods should never be used to achieve change. Although source 2 provided evidence of Marshall’s confidence and bold personality being highly significant, 2 also provides evidence to support 7, stating that “Marshall hit hardest at militants” and Marshall had an “uneasy relationship with black militants”.

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Source 2 quotes Marshall saying that the black power movement was just “a bunch of crazy coloured black students,” highlighting Marshall’s complete lack of support for the black power movement. Sources 2 and 7, therefore, agree this aspect of the civil rights movement never gained public appeal, partially due to Marshall’s public criticisms, meaning their achievements were limited to some extent by Marshall. However, one needs to go beyond simply cross-referencing the sources and analyze the evidence’s usefulness. Sources 4, 5, 6 and 7 are all contemporary sources reflecting immediate reactions to Thurgood Marshall’s achievements. Source 5 is written by Marshall to a close friend and colleague, Herbert Levy, and herein lies its value, as it provides direct evidence of what Marshall himself believed his significance to be, without the possibility of the source’s evidence being skewed by others. Source 4 is a photograph, meaning the evidence provided is direct and unaltered, again making it valuable as a source.

Source 7 is also valid as evidence, as is an extract from a speech, it clearly shows Marshall’s opinions on those who advocate the use of violent methods to achieve change, and there would have been no motivation for Marshall to criticize those who advocate violence if that is not what he truly believed. The evidence provided by Sources 4, 5 and 7 is also largely backed up by Sources 1, 2 and 3, suggesting that Sources 4, 5 and 7 are valuable as evidence. However, in Source 6, the letter to Earl Warren from his three colleagues is less valid as evidence. It is not in the three colleagues’ interests to praise Marshall even though they dislike him. Warren was chief justice during the Brown case meaning it was in their interests to show loyalty. Although they state Warren was the main instigator of success in the brown case, it is unlikely.

Indeed Sources 1, 2 and 3 all largely provide evidence to disagree and state that Marshall was the main instigator of victory in the brown case and not Warren. This suggests that the evidence provided by source 6 for Warren being the main instigator of success in the brown case is not entirely valid. Overall, however, it does seem clear on balance from the evidence the sources provide that Marshall was massively significant in 1947-1967. The sources largely concur that Marshall was significant at directly tackling laws enforcing segregation and as a public figure and role model to others. Sources 4 and 5 both provide evidence that stands firm when the usefulness of the sources is analyzed. Indeed the evidence 4 and 5 provide is then widely backed up by Sources 1, 2 and 3, suggesting that 4 and 5 are both accurate and valid.

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Although there is some disagreement provided by source 6 that Marshall was not the main instigator of victory in the brown case, when this is compared to the evidence the secondary sources provide, it is clear that Source 6’s evidence has limited usefulness. However, although there is little evidence to show that Marshall’s significance at directly tackling segregation was limited, source 7 provides evidence of Marshall’s public criticism of the black power movement. This public criticism certainly damaged the black power movement’s image and appeal, and this meant that Marshall perhaps limited the amount they could achieve.

However, although sources 1 and 2 both agree that Marshall refused to condone those who advocated violent methods, neither agree with 7 that Marshall’s criticism was a significant factor leading to the failure of the Black power movement. On weighing up the sources, it is clear that the evidence provided by 4 and 5 is valid and backed up by the secondary works of Sources 1, 2 and 3. On the other hand, the evidence provided by sources 6 and 7 that suggests Marshall’s significance was limited in some ways is weak when the usefulness of the sources is put under scrutiny. Sources 1, 2 and 3 provide very little evidence to support the arguments 6 and 7 put forward.


  • Source 1- Black Heroes, Valerie Wilson Wesley and Wade Hudson. Pages 482-487
  • Source 2- Thurgood Marshall “American Revolutionary,” Juan Williams.
  • Source 3- “Warriors Don’t Cry”- Melba Patillo Beals
  • Source 4- – 8th picture along in the gallery.
  • Source 5-
  • Source 6-[email protected]%28mcc/052%29%29
  • Source 7-

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Significance of Thurgood Marshall in Helping Black Americans Gain Improved Civil Rights in the USA in the Period 1947-1967. (2021, Aug 17). Retrieved October 4, 2022, from