A biography of Thurgood Marshall, who 'came to personify the NAACP'

November 29, 1992|By Maurice C. Taylor




Michael D. Davis

and Hunter R. Clark.

Birch Lane Press.

` 400 pages. $24.95.

Thurgood Marshall changed forever the face of public institutions in Maryland. Charles Houston, his law professor at Howard University, taught that black lawyers should become "social engineers" and use the practice of law to reform society. As a young attorney in Maryland, Mr. Marshall helped to engineer the desegregation of Maryland's public beaches (Dawson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City); public golf courses (Law v. Park Board); the state's training schools for boys (State Board of Public Welfare v. Myers); the University of Maryland's School of Law (Murray v. University of Maryland), and its school of nursing (McCready v. Byrd). In 1937, Mr. Marshall challenged segregated education in Baltimore County in a case involving Catonsville High School (Williams v. Zimmerman).

After sharpening his social engineering skills in Maryland, this native of West Baltimore joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at its headquarters in New York, and he subsequently became the NAACP's chief counsel. Although Mr. Marshall received his greatest recognition for his 1954 Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education, he in fact won 29 of the 32 cases he argued as an attorney before the court. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him U.S. Solicitor General, and Mr. Marshall in turn won 14 of the 19 cases he took to the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States. In all, Thurgood Marshall won 43 of the 51 cases he had argued before the court before his appointment there in 1967. He retired from the court 24 years later, in 1991.

A biography of Thurgood Marshall that rises to the level of his accomplishments would help us understand how constitutional law was rewritten by the cases Mr. Marshall brought before the Supreme Court. We would also see how this revision of constitutional law nourished the hope and fed the courage of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

Regrettably, "Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench" offers few insights into the life and accomplishments of the man that could not be obtained from a rather cursory perusal of newspaper headlines. Information about Mr. Marshall is gathered largely from secondary sources such as court documents, government reports, letters and other memorandums. I found no indication that Mr. Marshall had volunteered any information for this biography.

Rather, it appears that the authors mostly use this book to display their collection of novel, curious and quirky banalities about Mr. Marshall. Michael D. Davis, a former reporter for The Evening Sun, and Hunter R. Clark may receive some notice for being among the first to publish a biography of him, but they have lost the opportunity to achieve acclaim for literary excellence.

Numerous problems haunt this text. The organization of the content is choppy, repetitive and somewhat difficult to follow. Reading the events and ideas flung haphazardly across the biography's 24 chapters is like wading through intellectual confetti.

Sometimes the events and ideas are only tangentially related to Mr. Marshall. In Chapter 23, the authors reprint a poem having nothing to do with Thurgood Marshall; "Keep the Faith" was written by former Justice William O. Douglas on the occasion of ** his own retirement from the Court. The last chapter is entitled "Marshall's Legacy," yet the authors spend several pages discussing the background and philosophy of the newest justice, Clarence Thomas.

Their conclusion in Chapter 1 that while on the Supreme Court Mr. Marshall "turned from a quick-witted verbal combatant to a philosophical joker" is simply not supported by the consistently well-crafted legal opinions he wrote during his tenure on the court. I do not believe the characterization is malicious, but it does foretell the authors' tendency throughout the text to offer naive explanations for the complex social forces of race and class with which Mr. Marshall wrestled throughout his personal and professional career.

In Chapter 24, for example, the authors note that Mr. Marshall "came to personify the NAACP" but that "a lot of things have changed" since he began his legal career. They conclude that the election of black mayors by white majorities in some cities "indicates that white America is beginning to realize its moral obligation to assure fairness and equality for all citizens."

This conclusion represents a leap of faith over a chasm of contrary evidence. Certainly, the recently nationally publicized actions of white police officers brutally beating African-American motorists Rodney King in Los Angeles and Malice Green (who was beaten to death) in Detroit are contrary to the notion of a "moral obligation" among whites "to assure fairness and equality for all citizens."

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