During his nearly 25 years on the Supreme Court, Marshall played a pivotal role in advocating for justice, equality, and civil rights in the United States. His legacy is marked by his dedication to key issues that profoundly impacted American society and culture.
1. Affirmative Action
Marshall’s support for affirmative action, which addresses historical disadvantages faced by minorities, underscored his commitment to creating a more level playing field. He believed in providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to access education and employment, helping to counteract systemic discrimination.
On August 15, 1987, Marshall spoke to a gathering of federal judges where he reflected on his decades on the Court and particularly on affirmative action rulings at the time by the High Court. Justice Marshall reminded his audience that the United States had not yet achieved racial equality or, as he called it, a colorblind society.
“I, too, believe in a colorblind society, but it has been and remains an aspiration,” he said. “It is a goal toward which our society has progressed uncertainty, bearing as it does the enormous burden of incalculable injuries inflicted by race prejudice and other bigotry, which the law once sanctioned and even encouraged. Not having attained our goal, we must face the simple fact that there are groups in every community which are daily paying the cost of the history of American injustice.”
Current Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown, who became the first Black woman to serve on the Court, echoed Marshall and slammed the idea of a colorblind society in the US in her dissent after affirmative action was struck down by the Court in June.
“Our country has never been colorblind. Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well-documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry,” Justice Brown says.
She starts with enslaved people brought over on ships, citing Marshall’s opinion for four of the Court’s justices in the original affirmative action case. She then notes several lawful mechanisms from post-emancipation to the present day that continue to hamper Black progress.
2. Opposition to the Death Penalty
Marshall’s stance against the death penalty highlighted his concerns about its potential for racial bias and wrongful convictions. He advocated for fair trials and due process, believing that the application of capital punishment should be just and equitable.
3. Women’s Reproductive Rights
Marshall’s support for a woman’s right to choose in matters of abortion demonstrated his commitment to individual autonomy and women’s rights. His perspective aligned with the broader movement advocating women’s control over their reproductive health decisions.
4. Equal Justice for All
Throughout his career, Marshall’s overarching mission was to ensure equal justice for every individual, regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic background. He used his position on the Supreme Court to challenge discriminatory laws and practices that perpetuated inequality.
5. Anti-Racism and Anti-Discrimination
Marshall’s background as a civil rights lawyer informed his efforts to combat racism and dismantle the segregationist Jim Crow laws that had entrenched inequality for generations. His work contributed to the broader civil rights movement, which sought to create a more inclusive and equitable society.
By leveraging the power of the courts, Marshall sought to effect meaningful change in American society. His legacy is a testament to the potential of dedicated individuals to make a lasting impact on the nation’s values and progress. Marshall’s contributions inspire current and future generations to pursue justice and equality for all.