By Gary Rawlins, Black Books and Reviews.com
Thurgood Marshall devoted his life to forging legal principles that advanced equal rights for all Americans. Marshall first gained national acclaim for winning Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, one of the single most important and controversial decisions in Supreme Court history. Afterward, his star continued to rise. He would become a member of the U.S Court of Appeals, solicitor general of the United States, and an associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Larry S. Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland, has written a book about Marshall that focuses on the early career of the civil rights crusader. Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice stops short of a detailed examination of his work as the NAACP lawyer assigned to represent the parents when the High Court opened arguments in the Brown case.
Gibson begins at the beginning, introducing the extended family: grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. It’s a family of achievers — some with remarkable names: Uncle Fearless Williams, personal assistant to president of the B&O Railroad; grandfathers Isaiah Olive Branch Williams and Thorney Good Marshall, both successful Baltimore grocers.
His mother’s father was born free in rural Maryland and served on Union vessels during the Civil War. His paternal grandfather had been a slave, a Union volunteer and a Buffalo Soldier. Like his grandson decades later, Thorney changed his name from Thoroughgood. Gibson doesn’t say so but, according to some accounts, Thorney made up the name Thoroughgood when he joined the Union Army.
Marshall was born in 1908 in Baltimore, the second son of William Marshall and Norma Williams. Gibson describes the parents as nurturing and supportive. The mother worked as a kindergarten teacher who was determined that her two sons obtain college degrees and become professionals. William Aubrey became a doctor; Thurgood a lawyer.
The father worked as a waiter in hotels, country clubs and railroad dining cars. He imparted a love of language and a deep respect for the rule of law in his youngest boy, Gibson says. “In later years, Marshall would credit his father with making him an advocate and discussions at home with stimulating his interest in competitive debating and confronting injustice.”
As a child, Marshall grew tired of writing out his given name “Thoroughgood” and insisted on being called “Thurgood.” Family and friends relented and, in time, so did everyone else, “although no official action occurred until 1948, when he was 40 years old,” Gibson says.
Relying heavily on primary sources, Gibson traces Marshall’s development through Baltimore’s segregated school system to college at Lincoln University to law school at Howard University. Between 1981 and 1985, Gibson interviewed relatives, neighbors, classmates and teachers. The conversations captured the milieu of Marshall’s community — a community where academic success was taken for granted. He quotes Carrie Jackson, Marshall’s elementary school classmate: “There was with our group a pervasive expectation of success. Scholarship was a natural because our parents expected us to do well in school.”
If black students got pressure from home, their teachers kept up the intensity. Gibson explains that Baltimore’s black schools were stocked with dedicated teachers. “Employment options for educated blacks outside the teaching profession were limited,” he says, and the academic credentials of black high school teachers in Baltimore City often exceeded those of their white counterparts. There were few avenues to advance in careers as a doctor, architect, engineer or lawyer at that matter. Using data compiled in the late 1920s, Gibson reveals that in some parts of the South the ratio of black citizens to black lawyers was as great as 200,000 to 1 and that many jurisdictions did not allow black lawyers to practice in their courts.
Marshall graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1925, and following in the path of his older brother, he enrolled at the predominantly black Lincoln University in Chester, Pa. There he joined such future notables as poet Langston Hughes, civil rights advocate Clarence Mitchell Jr., and Kwame Nkrumah, first president of an independent Ghana. He also met and married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey, shortly before his graduation cum laude in 1930.
Gibson describes Lincoln as the “Black Princeton.” Founded in 1854, Lincoln became the first degree-granting college for African- Americans. At Lincoln, Marshall honed debating skills engendered in high school, becoming the first freshman to win a spot on the varsity debate team. Gibson reminds us that competitive debating was a national sensation among colleges at that time. More than 3,000 people heard Marshall strongly condemn European colonialism, in a debate against a team from England.
Black newspapers, including Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Philadelphia Tribune, reported on the competitions as a matter of course. Commenting on Marshall’s debate performance as a sophomore, the Tribune told readers that “with possibly a little more experience, Thurgood should stand preeminently above most of the debaters of color in collegiate competitions in the country.” Marshall’s most memorable debate came against a team from Harvard University. The topic was intermixing of races, and the Lincoln team was assigned to argue that intermixing was undesirable.
Gibson sets the record straight on Marshall’s “rejection” from the University of Maryland School of Law. Knowing of the school’s color bar, he never applied. For decades, the rejection tale has been making the rounds.
Marshall was accepted by Howard University Law School in 1930. At that time, the school accounted for more than 70% of black lawyers in the nation, Gibson says. The school had recently engaged a new dean, a selection that would have far-reaching ramifications for the career of Marshall. Charles Hamilton Houston was arguably the single most important figure in Marshall’s life apart from members of his family. Marshall took to heart advice from his mentor, that unless black lawyers were “social engineers” they were “parasites.”
Marshall graduated magna cum laude in 1933. He opened his first law office in Baltimore in the midst of the Great Depression, when with guidance from Houston he filed successful challenges to Maryland’s segregation statues. He soon joined Houston at the NAACP and the pair helped launch a series of court challenges to segregated colleges and universities across the South. Their effort culminated in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education, the decision outlawing segregation in public schools.
Gibson neatly summarizes the key cases in their two-decades-long assault on Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that legitimized the practice of “Separate but Equal” – the foundational doctrine of segregation laws. Their method was to file a stream of narrowly-focused lawsuits in state courts to obtain rulings, and thus set precedents, under a variety of circumstances in which “separate” was inherently inequitable.
Other books about Marshall have been more comprehensive and exhaustive. Two fine candidates are Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams and Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation by Rawn James Jr.
Gibson has taken a more surgical approach, producing a well- researched and thoughtful biography, and worthy addition to the Marshall literature.
About the Book Review Author
Gary Rawlins is a Washington, D.C. area journalist and Civil War historian.