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.'"