Biographer Rowan recalls era, ways of Thurgood Marshall

February 16, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — In yesterday's Today section, the wrong date was given for the Frederick Douglass convocation at Morgan State University. The ceremony, honoring Carl Rowan and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Carl Rowan remembers well the first time he saw Thurgood Marshall in action. It was 1953, and Mr. Rowan, a young reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, was invited to New York for a meeting held by the NAACP, of which Marshall was general counsel.

"He let me sit in on the strategy sessions for trying to win Brown vs. Board of Education [the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation]," says Mr. Rowan. "There, I realized he was a masterful tactician, but beyond that he was really great in the way he could get the most influential social scientists, law school deans, sociologists, to join him in this mission -- all of them working for nothing. I knew that only a man of great personal appeal could draw the best brains in America to the pursuit of overturning Plessy vs. Ferguson," the 1896 Supreme Court case that had upheld the principle of separate but equal.


For both Mr. Rowan and Marshall, it was to be a memorable hTC association. Marshall, son of a working-class West Baltimore family, became a towering figure in the civil rights movement and, in 1967, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Rowan went on to become a successful newspaperman and columnist, as well as ambassador to Finland and head of the U.S. Information Agency.

Along the way, Mr. Rowan and Marshall continued their acquaintanceship -- always on a professional basis, the journalist maintains, but one of mutual respect. When Marshall died Jan. 24, at the age of 84, Carl Rowan sat with the Marshall family at the funeral. Only the day before, Mr. Rowan's biography, "Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall," had been published.

It's an affectionate, at times reverent, portrait of the man Mr. Rowan writes was "a demanding spirit of freedom." And it calls to mind Mr. Rowan's own contributions as probably the most influential andvisible black journalist of his time.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., Mr. Rowan is to be honored, along with Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, at Morgan State University's 125th anniversary Frederick Douglass memorial convocation. Each will receive the Frederick Douglass Award, given by the university's senior class for contributions to black history. The ceremony will be held at the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Auditorium and is open to the public.

"Carl [Rowan] gives me courage," says Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a leading black journalist. "When I see him stick his neck out, it encourages me to do the same thing. He's more than a journalist, but a history-making figure in his own right."

At 67, Mr. Rowan remains busy, doing a nationally syndicated column three times a week for the Chicago Sun-Times and a daily radio commentary, sponsored by Kmart, that also is syndicated around the country. "I could retire today," he says in an interview in his Washington home, "but you got to tired before you re-tire -- and I'm not tired."

That's a feeling Marshall would have understood. While many in the civil rights movement became burned out or disillusioned, he pressed on. As Mr. Rowan says, "Thurgood kept going because he had a bigger fire burning in his belly than the rest of the others did. And he had a tenacity that most others didn't have. He had a mission. He never stopped believing, and he never stopped thinking he could use the Constitution as a battering rod to open some places."

That was partly, Mr. Rowan writes, because of Marshall's growing up in segregated Baltimore, and partly because of the strong direction he got from his parents. Marshall told Mr. Rowan they gave their children "a lesson about the pervasiveness of racism, and that Negroes had to have some independence from white people."

Thurgood Marshall learned his lesson well. "In writing the book," Mr. Rowan says, "I got a better measure of his bravery -- how he came within a hair's breadth of being lynched in Columbia, Tenn.; how racists in Louisiana put a $10,000 contract on his head.

"But I found that if I mentioned his bravery, it always got his dander up, because he always said, 'I'm not the brave one. I go into town and I get the hell out on the fastest thing moving the next day. It's the people who stay back there -- lose their jobs, get oppressed or beaten or even shot -- those are the real heroes of the civil rights movement.' "

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