American Portraits

A Self-Made Man: The Story of Thurgood Marshall

In this lesson, students will explore the life of Thurgood Marshall and follow the development of his identity. Through his example, students will understand how they can develop and refine their identity in their own lives and, through this refinement, help advance freedom for themselves and others.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

One hundred and thirty-two years after the Founding Fathers ratified the Declaration of Independence, the “inalienable” rights of African Americans were still being denied. On July 2, 1908, Thurgood Marshall, one of the nation’s greatest proponents of civil rights, was born in Maryland. Marshall’s parents instilled the value of the Constitution and the rule of law in their son, who used this inspiration to forge a future for himself. He worked hard for everything that he received, and his experiences, character, and closest relationships prodded him toward success, a route that would be filled with obstacles….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Thurgood Marshall’s pursuit of his own identity inspire you to develop your own identity?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will explore the life of Thurgood Marshall and follow the development of his identity. Through his example, students will understand how they can develop and refine their identity in their own lives and, through this refinement, help advance freedom for themselves and others.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Thurgood Marshall’s life and actions and how they reflect his identity
  • Students will understand how they can develop their own identity
  • Students will apply this knowledge to focus and refine their personal identity

Background

The Civil Rights movement in the 20th century demonstrated to society the harms of racism. The science of the nineteenth century that claimed that blacks were culturally and naturally inferior to whites still resounded within the minds and hearts of many Americans. Nowhere did this trend arise more prominently and consistently than in the South, yet it wasn’t the only place. Racial prejudice remained active in every area of the United States.

Southern Jim Crow laws and strict segregation were some of the most obvious examples of racial prejudice. Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government remained indifferent toward the treatment of African Americans. In fact, the Supreme Court furthered the notion of whites’ superiority with decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the practice of “separate but equal” facilities. This resulted in almost universal segregation of blacks. Southern whites used Jim Crow laws to keep blacks from voting and freely assembling. For example, Southern states required voters to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes in order to exercise their ability to vote; these laws adversely affected African Americans, who tended to be less educated and more impoverished.

Though fewer laws were subjecting African Americans to direct racism in the North, segregation still existed. Schools were strictly segregated, and ethnic intermixing was all but forbidden. This was the atmosphere that shaped Thurgood Marshall.

Vocabulary

  • Proponent
  • Rule of Law
  • Litigator
  • Solicitor General
  • Jim Crow
  • Dignity
  • Ratify

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Thurgood Marshall?
  • What was Thurgood Marshall’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How does Thurgood Marshall’s work as a lawyer help shape his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Aldred, Lisa, and Heather Lehr Wagner. Thurgood Marshall: Supreme Court Justice. Legacy ed. Black Americans of Achievement. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.
  • http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/thurgood-marshall
  • Marshall, Thurgood. Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions, and Reminiscences. Edited by Mark V. Tushnet. The Library of Black America. Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001.
  • Starks, Glenn L., and F Erik Brooks.Thurgood Marshall: A Biography. Greenwood Biographies. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2012.
  • Thurgood Marshall. By: Cannon, Byron, Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January, 2014

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