Thurgood Marshall and Donald Murray - courtesy: Library of Congress

Thurgood Marshall won his first big civil rights case in 1936, when he sued the University of Maryland School of Law for barring a black applicant, Donald Murray, to the school. This was Marshall's first attack on school segregation; his intent was to show that the public university's exclusion of blacks violated the Plessy doctrine of separate-but-equal, because the school provided no separate (let alone equal) law school for blacks.

Harvard Law Professor, David Wilkins explained, "His tack was quite simple and straightforward, and irrefutable. The University of Maryland neither admitted black students, nor did it have a law school for blacks. Therefore how could it possibly be equal? And in fact... that's what the court decided, and ordered the admission of Donald Murray into the University of Maryland law school."

Wilkins told American RadioWorks that Thurgood Marshall and his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, took a step-by-step approach to school desegregation for nearly two more decades: "[They] challenged both the factual equality between the black and the white schools, as well as the general principle that separate could be equal in some meaningful constitutional sense… Each victory then built up to the next victory and the next victory, and by the late 1940s they had won a series of cases. Brown was the culmination of that 20-year campaign."

The Murray v. Pearson case was a deeply personal victory; Marshall had wanted to attend his home-town law school, but knew the school wouldn't admit him because he was black. Instead, Marshall had to commute an hour each day to the all-black Howard University law school in Washington, D.C. In one way, Marshall's racial exclusion from the Maryland law school proved fortuitous: Marshall met his long-time mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard. In the early 1930s, Houston left his teaching position at Howard to become the chief lawyer for the NAACP in New York. Houston was one of the chief architects of the legal strategy for defeating segregation and early on enlisted Marshall as the chief combatant.