New Biography Shows Marshall's Imprint in U.S. History

Article excerpt

Who knows why Thurgood Marshall finally said yes? Supreme Court justices rarely grant interviews, and Marshall, a man much scarred by half a century of legal and racial battle, was more reticent than most.

Juan Williams, now 44, had been after Marshall to talk to him for years. The letters had started when Williams, whose career at The Washington Post had included tours as editorial board member and White House correspondent, was at work on the book that accompanied the award-winning 1987 PBS history of the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize. Marshall finally agreed to talk in July 1989, 3 1/2 years before his death.

Marshall had long since ceased to be a flesh-and-blood character. He had become a symbol -- and a caricature. The symbol was a civil-rights legend, the first black Supreme Court justice. The caricature was a grumpy old man, "out of sorts and out of step," in Williams' words. Once a week, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, Williams would visit Marshall's chambers. Their sessions took place over the course of the next six months. They'd last a couple of hours. "He'd kick me out around lunchtime, when he'd have his soup," Williams recalled on a recent visit to Boston to promote his new biography, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. The tape recorder was on -- and Marshall would be off. Williams was discovering that the man frequently described as the most important lawyer (black, white, or otherwise) in 20th-century U.S. history was also one of its best storytellers. "Oftentimes, it felt like I was up to see the wizard and getting behind the curtain and peeking," Williams said. "He was able to tell me stories that made me feel as if I was doing time travel. This was a guy who went to high school with Cab Calloway, the singer, then he goes to college with Langston Hughes. When he gets his first job in New York at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, his office is next to W.E.B. DuBois'. He's in Asia confronting Douglas MacArthur over the treatment of black soldiers. Branch Rickey calls him up to help with Jackie Robinson's finances. I'd find myself saying, `Did you really know all those people?' "He was there at Joe Louis fights. He remembers as a kid watching Marcus Garvey's marches through Harlem. It's just unbelievable that he touched so many other lives. In fact, I've come to think it may be a function of segregation: that black people were so concentrated back then they all knew each other." It was Marshall who did more, perhaps, than any other individual to end that era of racial separation. He masterminded the series of court challenges to segregation that culminated in the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling in Brown vs. …

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