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Thurgood Marshall, legal director of the NAACP, during the Trenton Six murder trial, 1949.
Thurgood Marshall, legal director of the NAACP, during the Trenton Six murder trial, 1949.Cornell Capa—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Thurgood Marshall, legal director of the NAACP, during the Trenton Six murder trial, 1949.
Thurgood Marshall, legal director of the NAACP, during the Trenton Six murder trial, 1949.
NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall standing on the steps of the Supreme Court Building, 1955.
Distraught Autherine Lucy, meeting with the press, as Attorney Thurgood Marshall (L) waves them away, 1956.
NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall speaking during the Little Rock integration crisis, 1956.
NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall leaving the US Supreme Court building after the latest round of the Little Rock School Integration case.
Thurgood Marshall and others leaving the U.S.Supreme Court after hearing on School Intergration, 1958.
Thurgood Marshall speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after Court's upholding Little Rock desegregation order, 1958.
NAACP Counsel Thurgood Marshall and his staff, 1960.
U.S. Justice Thurgood Marshall with his wife, Cecilia Suyat, 1967.
U.S. Justice Thurgood Marshall with his wife and children, 1967.
US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in his chambers, 1967.
Thurgood Marshall, legal director of the NAACP, during the Trenton Six murder trial, 1949.
Cornell Capa—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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See Thurgood Marshall's Career Before His Supreme Court Days

When Thurgood Marshall was confirmed to the Supreme Court 50 years ago — on Aug. 30, 1967 — the United States' highest court gained its first African-American justice. The confirmation was a crowning achievement in Marshall's already long and illustrious legal career, which was well documented by LIFE Magazine in the years leading up to that day. As shown by these LIFE photos of his career in the years between 1949 and 1967, he was — as the magazine once dubbed him — the "chief counsel for equality."

Working on behalf of the NAACP, he had tackled segregation in courts across the South and Washington, D.C., and even his most dedicated opponents could not help but admit to his skill. Though his friends had thought him foolish for taking on civil-rights cases early in his career — especially because he often did that work unpaid — he had turned his passion for those cases into history-defining success.

"[The] leading civil rights lawyer of his time is a surprising man, full of contradictions," LIFE noted in a 1955 profile. "No solemn crusader, he is high-spirited, loud-talking and wisecracking. Profoundly devoted to a cause, he usually looks and sounds like a man who is mainly concerned with satisfying his zest for life."

Despite all his success thus far, his colleagues noted at the time that he always got nervous before he had to argue something before the Supreme Court, though he pepped up as soon as he got going. And yet that profile, written at the height of the fight over segregation, ended on a prophetic note: "As Thurgood Marshall left the Supreme Court building last week," LIFE noted, he squared his shoulders and said, 'We're gonna be back.'"

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