Writer driven to do justice to giant Marshall

July 14, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Like many biographers, Juan Williams has discovered that the scope of his book will have to extend beyond a retelling of the subject's life. After all, you have to provide context for the reader.

But when you're writing about Thurgood Marshall, the former Supreme Court justice and native of Baltimore, a biography becomes a little more complicated.

"The size of the landscape I'm dealing with is absolutely staggering," Mr. Williams says with a sigh. "Not only was he a fascinating and very complex man, but he was involved in some of the most important events of this century."

Mr. Williams, the author of the best-selling chronicle of the civil rights movement "Eyes on the Prize," will be a celebrity reader at Artscape '94, which begins tomorrow. He says he will talk "a little bit about the civil rights movement, reading from books and talking about people in the movement."

Marshall certainly qualifies as a giant in that movement. Born in West Baltimore in 1908, he attended Douglass High School. Of his biography, Mr. Williams says, "I'm trying to build a story about a young man who was born into a situation that immediately puts its imprint on him. He was born in a city with the largest free black population pre-Civil War, and a very thriving black middle class post-Civil War. It was politically active, though Marshall grew up with not much of a social consciousness. He just wanted to find a way to survive and get by, but he was not the activist born."

At Howard University's law school, under the tutelage of its legendary dean, Charles H. Houston, Marshall began his career of legal activism. As head of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in the 1950s, Marshall helped coordinate the legal strategy to combat segregation in public schools, among other accomplishments. In 1967, he was appointed the first black Supreme Court Justice, retiring in 1991.

After Marshall's death in 1993, Lawrence Tribe, the noted constitutional scholar, called him "the greatest lawyer in the 20th century."

When he began working on "Eyes on the Prize" in the mid-1980s, Mr. Williams says, he tried to interview Marshall. "But I couldn't get him to talk for the book," says Mr. Williams, a columnist at the Washington Post. "All of a sudden, years later, there was a call at the paper from a secretary in Marshall's office. Marshall wanted me to come visit him for a magazine article."

The two met frequently for about six months, Mr. Williams says, and he accumulated about 20 hours of taped interviews. He found Marshall to be pretty much as advertised: forthright and forceful, despite physical constraints. "He was pretty candid, but I could tell he was tired. He had been through a lot and had a lot of illness."

One of Marshall's more interesting revelations was that shortly before President Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, he telephoned Marshall. "Johnson told him that it wasn't Vietnam that really led to him being forced out of office, but it had been putting Marshall on the Supreme Court, which cost him nationally, and in the South in particular," Mr. Williams said. "It was a curious call. Was he trying to provoke Thurgood's guilt? He loved Johnson -- they were drinking buddies. And if Johnson had wanted to provoke great guilt, I think he did."

Mr. Williams estimates he has done about three-fourths of the required research, and that the book should be done in about two years. "It's totally consuming me," he says. "I go to sleep at night wondering what I might have missed."

Marshall has already been the subject of at least two biographies -- a straightforward retelling of his life by Hunter Clark and Michael D. Davis, a former Evening Sun reporter, and an anecdote-filled book by Carl Rowan that is part Marshall's life story and part an account of his friendship with the columnist. But Mr. Williams says Marshall's life merits another book.

"He's worthy of a great biography," Mr. Williams says. "I think when, in a few years, you'll be reading lists about people who made this century, I would be surprised if Marshall weren't on it."

READINGS

What: Juan Williams and Washington writer Marita Golden will be celebrity readers at Artscape '94.

When: 8:45 p.m. Saturday

Where: Langsdale Auditorium, University of Baltimore. A reception for the two will be held afterward in the lobby of the university's Law Center.

Call: (410) 396-4575

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