Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

By Mumford, Kevin | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary


Mumford, Kevin, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

More extensivley and complexly than Taylor Branch's Martin Luther King, Jr., or Alex Haley's Malcolm X, or David Levering Lewis's W.E.B. Du Bois, Juan Williams study of the African American lawyer and judge, Thurgood Marshall examines in detail the hardships of racial segregation. The narrative explores what I would call a central paradox of American race relations: that segregation enforced spatial barriers, delimited political spheres, severely restricted opportunities but segregation also fostered a black community that thrived. Marshall's black family suffered from economic scarcity and poverty, and yet they served as pillars of their community, and Marshall asorbed precious lessons from his seemingly organic relationship to Baltimore's segregated black community. Williams has written a popular biography, a journalist's rendering, which will undoubtedly sell many copies to an interested audience. The narrative occasionally sacrifices analytical rigor for a perceived popular appeal -- Williams does not engage fundamental though complex legal themes, such as due process or federalism.

Though he is referred to as an activist or civil rights leader, Marshall should be approached as an astute legal strategist; his pragmatic discourse on equal protection secured the winning decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguably the most significant Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century. Williams spends about a quarter of the book each on Marshall's early years, college and law school years, the era of Brown, and his ascension to the Supreme Court. Williams undoubtedly consulted Mark Tushnet's widely praised biographical study of Marshall, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961, which was published in 1994. Tushnet is an academic specialist in legal history; though his book is approximately the same length as Williams's biography, I feel that Williams covers more material and achieves a better understanding of the justice, his legal reasoning, and the politics of state. The two studies are equal in their analysis of the succession of cases leading to Brown, but Williams's rich narrative of African American life gives us essential context. I feel that the weakness of both studies in terms of analysis of legal issues and analyzing the complex relations between law and society show us an urgent need for new intellectual histories of segregation/integration.

Williams researched deeply in African American social history, carefully reconstructing the nineteenth and early twentieth century world of Baltimore. Marshall attended Colored High School, befriending the likes of Cab Calloway. After his father died, Marshall's mother worked extra hours and saved, just to keep Thurgood in school. He attended Lincoln University, which many called the Black Princeton.

Williams found interesting materials and anecdotes in the Lincoln years. Contrary to what you might expect from a lawyer who led the fight against desegregation, Marshall was a college conservative. Marshall attended Lincoln at the same time as the poet Langston Hughes, and he debated Hughes on the merits of segregation of the faculty. Marshall argued that the university should retain its racially segregated, all-white faculty, while the cosmopolitan Hughes argued that Lincoln should recruit black faculty. Such an anecdote reminds us that integration was not yet a black shibboleth; perspectives varied and black Americans gradually evolved toward liberal integrationism (though, as I said, we need to research the details of that intellectual trajectory). Williams believes that Marshall's debate with Hughes represented a turning point, when "for the first time in his life, he began thinking about Jim Crow practices."(1)

It was after graduating from Lincoln, however, that Marshall confronted the harshest aspect of segregation, when he applied to law school and sought admission to the University of Maryland Law School, which excluded black Americans. …

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