Thurgood Marshall's long career championing the less privileged culminated in a victory in the most important civil rights case in American history and propelled him to a seat on the Supreme Court, the only black ever to serve there.
Marshall announced Thursday, 24 years after being picked for the court by Lyndon Johnson and just five days shy of his 83rd birthday, that he was stepping down from the bench.
For nearly a quarter of century, Marshall was a mainstay of the high court's liberal wing, flourishing at first under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren but declining as the years went by into a small dissenting group overshawdowed by conservatives who took more and more control.
As the great-grandson of a slave, he began his career of fighting for civil rights in the 1930s and was the NAACP's chief architect in its battle to have school segregation ruled unconstitutional.
That long crusade ended in 1954 when the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education struck down the 'separate but equal' doctrine that had stood since the last century.
The high court's opinion opened the way for the massive civil rights struggle that was to grip the nation for the next decade.
In part because of his fame in that case, he was chosen for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and served there from 1961 to 1965.
Johnson then appointed him as U.S. solicitor general -- the government's chief representative before the Supreme Court. It was believed Johnson made the appointment so that people could get used to seeing a black man argue in the highest court in the land as a prelude to putting him on the court itself.
When Justice Tom Clark stepped down in 1967, Johnson nominated Marshall, the first black to be so chosen. The Senate confirmed him 69- 11 with most of the negative votes coming from Deep South critics of the Supreme Court.
As a justice, Marshall consistently voted to expand civil liberties and the rights of the accused. In those early years, he was often voting in the majority along with his colleague, William Brennan.
A big, plain-spoken man who one observer said 'never forgot where he came from,' Marshall could be counted on during arguments on a case to ask how a ruling would affect the poor person or the man on the street.
But in later years, he found himself voting often in the minority. When Brennan retired last year, observers said some of Marshall's heart seem to go out of his work.
Watching in frustration as the court turned away from liberal positions, Marshall's anger sometimes flared on the bench as the justices sat listening to oral arguments in pending cases.
On the day he announced his retirement, Marshall issued a scathing dissent from a ruling that said jurors deciding whether to sentence a murderer to death can take into account testimony from the victim's family and friends about the emotional impact of the killing.
Marshall accused Chief Justice William Rehnquist of orchestrating an attack on past rulings based solely on a newfound conservative majority with the retirement of Brennan and the addition of David Souter.
'Power, not reason, is the new currency of this court's decision- making,' wrote Marshall. 'Neither the law nor the facts supporting Booth and Gathers underwent any change in the last four years. Only the personnel of this court did.'
'Today's majority ominously suggests that an even more extensive upheaval of this court's precedents may be in store,' wrote Marshall.NEWLN: more