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Timeless Thurgood Marshall Quotes On Law, Race, and More

Thurgood Marshall made history as the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. Take a peek into his thoughts on law, American society, and race through the Thurgood Marshall quotes below. 

Have you ever wanted to become a judge? 

Before becoming a Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall was an executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. During his time with the NAACP, his skill as a lawyer shaped many prominent court cases that have changed American law. They include Brown vs. Board of Education, concerning racial segregation in public schools, and Smith vs. Allwright, surrounding racial discrimination and voting rights. 

Throughout his career in law, Marshall helped America make strides towards becoming a more equal society. 

Want to learn more about African-American Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall? Take a look at the collection of quotes below!

Don’t forget to also read these Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes on standing for justice.

Thurgood Marshall quotes about law and being a judge

1. “Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” – Thurgood Marshall

2. “Ending racial discrimination in jury selection can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.” – Thurgood Marshall

3. “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.” – Thurgood Marshall

4. “The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment… It is also evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged members of society.” – Thurgood Marshall

5. “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” – Thurgood Marshall

6. “Deciding not to decide is, of course, among the most important things done by the Supreme Court. It takes a lot of doing, but it can be done.” – Thurgood Marshall

7. “We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future.” – Thurgood Marshall

8. “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” – Thurgood Marshall

9. “Lawlessness is lawlessness. Anarchy is anarchy is anarchy. Neither race nor color nor frustration is an excuse for either lawlessness or anarchy.” – Thurgood Marshall

10. “I’m the world’s original gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough.” – Thurgood Marshall

11. “The legal system can force open doors, and sometimes-even knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. The country can’t do it. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other.” – Thurgood Marshall

Powerful Thurgood Marshall quotes 

12. “Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.” – Thurgood Marshall

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13. “What is the quality of your intent?” – Thurgood Marshall

14. “Each of you, as an individual, must pick your own goals. Listen to others, but do not become a blind follower.” – Thurgood Marshall

15. “Surely the fact that a uniformed police officer is wearing his hair below his collar will make him no less identifiable as a policeman.” – Thurgood Marshall

16. “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” – Thurgood Marshall

17. “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.” – Thurgood Marshall

18. “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Thurgood Marshall

19. “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.” ― Thurgood Marshall

20. “A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.” – Thurgood Marshall

21. “Truth is more than a mental exercise.” – Thurgood Marshall

22. “Certain people have a way of saying things that shake us at the core. Even when the words do not seem harsh or offensive, the impact is shattering. What we could be experiencing is the intent behind the words. When we intend to do good, we do. When we intend to do harm, it happens. What each of us must come to realize is that our intent always comes through.” – Thurgood Marshall

23. “We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knockdown the fences, which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side. We shall have liberty for all.” – Thurgood Marshall

Also check out these John Lewis quotes that will inspire you to continue his work

Thurgood Marshall quotes about American society 

24. “A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.” – Thurgood Marshall

25. “It is important that the strongest pressures against the continuation of segregation, North or South, be continually and constantly manifested. Probably, as much as anything else, this is the key in the elimination of discrimination in the United States.” – Thurgood Marshall

26. “Nothing can be more notorious than the calumnies and invectives with which the wisest measures and most virtuous characters of The United States have been pursued and traduced (by American newspapers).” – Thurgood Marshall

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27. “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” – Thurgood Marshall

28. “This is a great country, but fortunately for you, it is not perfect. There is much to be done to bring about complete equality. Remove hunger. Bring reality closer to theory and democratic principles.” – Thurgood Marshall

29. “I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” – Thurgood Marshall

30. “We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work.” – Thurgood Marshall

31. “As soon as I reach any town, I talk to the shoe-shine boys or the barbers or the people in the restaurants, because it’s Mr. Joe Doakes who is very close to reality.” – Thurgood Marshall

32. “To protest against injustice is the foundation of all our American democracy.” – Thurgood Marshall

33. “The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.” – Thurgood Marshall

34. “This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system.” – Thurgood Marshall

35. “The process of democracy is one of change. Our laws are not frozen into immutable form, they are constantly in the process of revision in response to the needs of a changing society.” – Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall quotes about American government

36. “Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.” – Thurgood Marshall

37. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.” – Thurgood Marshall

38. “Today’s Constitution is a realistic document of freedom only because of several corrective amendments. Those amendments speak to a sense of decency and fairness that I and other Blacks cherish.” – Thurgood Marshall39.

39. “To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.” – Thurgood Marshall

40. “Our Constitution is the envy of the world, as it should be for it is the grand design of the finest nation on earth.” – Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall quotes about race

41. “’Black’ is an adjective, in my book, and the way I use it, sometimes I’ll say ‘black people.’ But if I’m talking about a person, I’m going to say ‘a Negro,’ because I was taught to say that, and I don’t see any reason to change it. I don’t think that gives pride or anything else. I don’t think you get pride by calling yourself this or that.” – Thurgood Marshall

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42. “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.” – Thurgood Marshall

If you’re enjoying these quotes, make sure to check out our collection of racism quotes about respect and equality.

43. “We could get more action in the South because the Negroes had a feeling that they were being oppressed. But you take New York, for example: they’d give Negroes little five-cent jobs here and there – and they thought they had something. And the same in Chicago and any of the metropolitan areas.” – Thurgood Marshall

44. “The Ku Klux Klan never dies. They just stop wearing sheets because sheets cost too much.” – Thurgood Marshall

45. “The United States has been called the melting pot of the world. But it seems to me that the colored man either missed getting into the pot or he got melted down.” – Thurgood Marshall

46. “Classifications and distinctions based on race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society. They are contrary to our constitution and laws.” – Thurgood Marshall

47. “The experience of Negroes in America has been different in kind, not just in degree, from that of other ethnic groups. It is not merely the history of slavery alone, but also that a whole people were marked as inferior by the law. And that mark has endured.” – Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall quotes about upbringing

48. “My father had a flat rule. He believed that every man’s house was his castle. He had a flat rule: no man could come in his house without his permission.” – Thurgood Marshall

49. “It was taken for granted that we had to make something of ourselves. Not much was said about it; it was just in the atmosphere of the home.” – Thurgood Marshall

50. “I never worked hard until I got to the Howard Law School and met Charlie Houston… I saw this man’s dedication, his vision, his willingness to sacrifice, and I told myself, ‘You either shape up or ship out.’ When you are being challenged by a great human being, you know that you can’t ship out.” – Thurgood Marshall

Are you a good listener?

Although Thurgood Marshall maintained one of the most important positions within American law, he didn’t lose sight of the plights of the everyday American. As mentioned in a previous quote, he talked to the “shoe-shine boys” and the “barbers” to get an authentic view of everyday life in America. 

If you are in a position of power, don’t forget to reach out to the many people that you’re representing. Whether you’re in a managerial position at work or the president of a club at school, being a great listener is an important part of being a great leader. 

Which of these Thurgood Marshall quotes and sayings is your favorite? Are there any other prominent figures we should feature on Everyday Power? Let us know below!

Nia Simone McLeod
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    October 17, 2020 at 7:33 AM


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