Hardly the definitive Marshall biography

MONDAY BOOK REVIEW

August 31, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

THURGOOD MARSHALL: JUSTICE FOR ALL. By Roger Goldman. Carroll and Graf Inc. 509 pages. $24.95. Perhaps it's best to begin by saying what "Thurgood Marshall: Justice For All" is not. It is certainly no "Parting the Waters," Taylor Branch's sprawling, superb, excruciatingly researched epic biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Surely Mr. Marshall's life deserves a work of the dimensions of Mr. Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Unfortunately, Mr. Goldman's book isn't it. There are no details of Mr. Marshall's life and experiences in the Jim Crow Baltimore of the early 1900s. Nor is there any account of his days at Baltimore's Douglass High School -- who his major influences were, who steered him to undergraduate studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, etc.

These details make for good biography, but they are notably absent from the present volume.

Mr. Goldman attributes this paucity of information to Mr. Marshall's inexorable drift into curmudgeonhood in recent years. But that's a shabby excuse for bad biography. After all, Mr. Branch's work wasn't even begun until after King's death.

The greatest flaw of "Marshall" is the book's cobbled together appearance. It is divided into three sections, only one of which offers any inkling of biographical information. The first section, entitled "Recollections of Thurgood Marshall," contains essays by former Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., federal court Judge Constance Baker Motley and journalist Juan Williams of the Washington Post.

This section also contains four chapters of Ronald Bland's 1973 Marshall biography, "Private Pressure on Public Law," four tributes by former law clerks and a tribute by Robert Carter, who was Mr. Marshall's assistant when the justice headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Of the lot, Mr. Bland's and Mr. Williams' pieces have the most biographical information.

Section two of the book consists of 72 pages on "The Jurisprudence of Thurgood Marshall," which delineate Mr. Marshall's views on such subjects as discrimination against the poor, rights of criminal suspects, capital punishment and abortion.

Section three, "The Legal Opinions of Thurgood Marshall," is a compilation of some 200 pages of Mr. Marshall's Supreme Court opinions and is probably more suitable reading for lawyers than for layman.

Even in bad biographies some useful bit of history occasionally slips through, however. In 1945, Mr. Marshall met with NAACP executive secretary Walter White and colleague William Hastie and decided that "the time had come for a direct attack on racial segregation. No longer should the association be satisfied with the strategy of attacking the inequality of separate facilities . . . it should demand fully integrated facilities. The courts must be forced to commit the doctrine of 'separate but equal' to the realm of forgotten ideas. On that day they had decided, as Marshall later admitted, to 'go for the whole hog.' "

If that passage is true, historians may be forced to revise their thinking of when the modern civil rights movement began. It did not begin with the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. Rather, it was made at that meeting between Mr. Marshall, White and Hastie when they decided to attack Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that made "separate but equal" the law of the land.

Readers of "Thurgood Marshall: Justice For All" might also be inclined to re-evaluate which 20th-century civil rights leader had the most impact on America. Though most people probably believe it was King, the historical evidence suggests that Justice Marshall is at least as strong a contender for that title.

Mr. Marshall was arguing and winning significant cases before the U.S. Supreme Court while King was still in high school. Smith vs. Allwright, which invalidated whites-only primary elections, was argued in 1944. Morgan vs. Virginia, argued in 1946, banned segregation on vehicles engaged in interstate commerce. Brown Board of Education was won a year before the Montgomery bus boycott.

And King's victory in Montgomery might never have occurred if Mr. Marshall hadn't argued and won Owen vs. Members of the Alabama Public Service Commission, in which the court ruled that segregation on intrastate buses was unconstitutional.

Such interesting tidbits do not rescue the rest of the book from mediocrity, unfortunately.

The definitive biography of Justice Marshall has yet to be written. We are still waiting for Taylor Branch, or someone like him, to write it.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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