I know that Juan Williams has written several books, but what I know best is his unfortunate dismissal by NPR and his subsequent escapades with Fox News. No hint of any of that in his 1998 biography of Thurgood Marshall.
I thought I knew a fair amount about Marshall, but on reading the book, I see that there was much, much more. And all of it is impressive. The Thurgood Marshall of this book comes out a true American hero. How to describe him: perhaps a very bright, very committed black good old boy, who kept his important goals in mind. He attended an all black high school in Baltimore with Cab Calloway, and all black Lincoln University with Langston Hughes. Starting out as a prankster, he became a serious student and (no surprise here) expert debater. He then went to Howard Law School, where he made excellent grades, became close to several faculty members, and learned very well the legal system of the District of Columbia. Throughout this period, he proved to be able to befriend and circulate with all sorts of people, white as well as black.
Upon graduation and passing his bar examination, Marshall set up his own office in Baltimore, but found it rather hard to get clients. Not one to stay inactive, he began to volunteer to help the NAACP. He went on a number of trips with his former instructor Charles Hamilton Houston, fact finding trips to view racial conditions in the South, helping to focus his mind on the laws that fostered segregation. His practice picked up and he got involved in union activities in Baltimore, helping get a black man elected to an officer position in the union representing Bethlehem Steel’s employees, and helping lead campaigns to get certain retail establishment to employ blacks. He then challenged in state court the University of Maryland Law School, which did not allow black students to attend. Marshall brought suit against the school on the constitutional basis of equal opportunity – on the theory that “separate but equal” did not apply, because Maryland had no equal black law school. In fact, it had no black law school at all.
Marshall left Baltimore to work for the NAACP in New York. The year was 1936. Even before the extraordinarily important case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, declaring segregated schools illegal, Marshall and the NAACP had quite a record. In addition to the school segregation cases, there were cases dealing with the right of minorities to serve on juries, the rights of blacks to vote both in general elections and in primary parties, the defense of blacks against murder and other criminal charges in the South where they were basically railroaded (such as the Emmett Till case), segregation in buses and other types of transportation, and responses to race riots and military discrimination.
All of this required a broad array of talent. Marshall had to be a legal strategist and writer. He had to be one of the public voices of the NAACP. He had to run an office and a staff. He had to have indefatigable energy. He had to get along with everyone – blacks and whites, lawyers and judges, and even J. Edgar Hoover. He had to roll with the punches (as when this young Martin Luther King, Jr. began to operate in an entirely different manner, ignoring the formal legal system and taking risks that Marshall thought not advisable).
Marshall’s role with the NAACP (and later the separated NAACP Legal Defense Fund) ended in 1961, when John F. Kennedy appointed him a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals (he was confirmed after quite a bit of Southern opposition, as you would imagine), where he served until 1965, when he became our first African-American Solicitor General, and in 1967 a justice of the Supreme Court, where he served for almost 25 years.
Things were not perfect, of course. He had years of poverty. He was always a heavy drinker, and somewhat of a party boy. He was accused of being lazy, although if the book is at all accurate, this does not seem a serious accusation. His brother and then his first wife died at a young age. And of course he had to face anti-black vitriol and discrimination.
But he was involved, centrally involved, in so many aspects of the 20th century civil rights movements, and his accomplishments were so many and so large.
I highly recommend the book.