A Lifetime Fighting Racism
ON New Year's Day in New Orleans, the University of Alabama defeated the University of Miami to win the college football championship. For most Americans, it was unremarkable that these teams from the deep South were heavy with black as well as white players. Just 30 years ago, though, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in a doorway to block two black students from entering the state university, such a thing was unimaginable.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the life work of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who died last weekend, is how remote seems the rigidly segregated world that he was born into and fought so mightily to change.
Carl T. Rowan, a long-time Washington reporter and syndicated columnist, knew Marshall for 40 years. In this warm biography of the civil rights lawyer and judge who played a key role in abolishing Jim Crow segregation, Rowan draws on wide research and numberless hours he spent talking with Marshall.
The book doesn't pretend to be an objective appraisal - although Rowan is far too good a reporter to be careless with facts or to overlook hard questions. But what Rowan's book lacks in scholarly distance is compensated for by insight into Marshall's heart and thinking that came with long friendship.
(Another new biography, "Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench," by Michael D. Davis and Hunter R. Clark [Birch Lane Press, 400 pp., $24.95] offers a perhaps more disinterested portrait.)
Marshall, born in 1908, was raised in Baltimore. While segregation was a fact of life in his boyhood, Jim Crow first jolted him personally when he was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School. Humiliated, Marshall found his calling.
Soon after his 1933 graduation from Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., Marshall signed on with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. For a quarter century, most of them as the NAACP's chief counsel, Marshall was a knight with a briefcase, rushing by train or plane to the legal assistance of black people fighting for equal treatment in education, voting rights, and criminal justice; or else he was burning the midnight oil in the NAACP's New York office with "his im pecunious little band of lawyers."
What kept Marshall going during these bone-wearying, dangerous (in 1946 he was nearly lynched in Tennessee), and often disappointing years? In no small part, it was his simple devotion to the Constitution's promise of "equal protection." "Marshall had wrapped the parchment around his heart," Rowan writes.
Marshall's legal skills produced some historic victories in the US Supreme Court, including a 1944 decision that eliminated whites-only political primaries in the South and the landmark 1954 ruling that banned segregation in public schools.
In 1967 President Johnson appointed Marshall to be the first black member of the Supreme Court. For 24 years, until his retirement in 1991, Marshall was a strong voice for racial justice, free speech, and women's rights.
Rowan says, however, that the "precious quality that the black justice had brought to the Court" was his personal experience with the lives of the poor and powerless; this background enabled him to be a "special advocate, or `defense attorney,' inside the Court" for people who knew discrimination and poverty.
Rowan makes no bones about his admiration for Marshall and for such other "dream makers" as Harry Truman, former Chief Justice Earl Warren, and former Justice William Brennan; and the author is no less straightforward in his dislike for "dream breakers" - a political enemies list that includes George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Spiro Agnew, Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, and Marshall's successor on the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas.
However a reader may regard these people, Rowan's good-guy/bad-guy approach lends an element of superficiality to what otherwise is a sensitive study of a great American.