The early shaping of Justice Marshall

October 02, 1998|By JUAN WILLIAMS

This is an edited excerpt of a talk given by journalist Juan Williams at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday. Mr. Williams is author of "Thurgood Marshall -- American Revolutionary," a new biography of the late Supreme Court justice.

BALTIMORE gave Thurgood Marshall his lifelong vision of racial equality because black people in Baltimore, even at the turn of the century, had a great deal of political power. Also, they had the right to go to school, to serve on juries.

Both of Thurgood Marshall's grandfathers were large players in the black community here. Both of them ran successful grocery stores, and one of them, Isaiah O. B. Williams, was a political activist who took a lead in fighting police brutality in Baltimore in 1875.

Young Thurgood was born in 1908 at 543 McMechen St., and he knew what it was like from a very young age to live in an integrated neighborhood.

Baltimore was one of the few places where that was possible in the country at that time.

Prominent mentors

There were many important people here who helped to shape his life, including Carl Murphy, the legendary publisher of the Afro-American newspaper, and Lillie Jackson, the head of the Baltimore NAACP.

Now, let's go back to an incident that took place 1875, involving Marshall's grandfather, Isaiah O.B. Williams. Remember that even before the Civil War, Baltimore had more free black people than anyplace in the United States.

You had many free black people operating in so many ways -- building sails for boats, operating in the business community, the religious community. With this sense of independence came a strong sense of a black community with purpose and a strong sense of having a political voice and a willingness to use that voice.

This incident begins with a shooting on Saturday, July 31, 1875. There had been a loud party at the home of Daniel Brown, just a few blocks away from Isaiah O.B. Williams' house.

An Irish police officer, Patrick McDonald, thought that this cake-walk party (a party held to raise rent money) was one in which the police were supposed to get a cut of the proceeds, but there had been no payoff.

So he was kind of mad and some of the neighbors were complaining that there was noise coming from the party. When Officer McDonald went about 2 a.m. to tell Brown to quiet down, events quickly turned violent. The red-headed policeman threatened to snatch the partygoers off to jail if they didn't immediately halt the noise.

Brown, in an angry tone, told Officer McDonald, "Snatch, no you won't." And with that, the short, muscular policeman jumped at him hitting him on the head with a nightstick. Brown's wife jumped in to save her husband, but the policeman pushed the screaming woman away. As Brown began to move, the officer pulled out his revolver, and still struggling with the woman, he shot Brown in the head.

Mounting a protest

The murder led Isaiah Williams and several other leading black Baltimoreans to investigate what had happened and hold a public rally against police brutality.

Speaking before a crowded Douglass Institute, Williams said the situation cast a revealing light on larger issues plaguing Baltimore's black community. He said "there is little protection afforded us by the police in cases of assault where the offenders are white.

"Second there are frequent arrests made by officers without warrant or authority for entering houses occupied by colored citizens."

There was no holding back the crowd's emotion as Williams spoke. His remarks reached their crescendo when he said that black Baltimoreans demanded "simple justice and the same protection in life, liberty and the pursuit of our happiness which white men enjoy as a right."

His speech was greeted with a loud and long outbursts of applause.

Now this is the part that is truly unique about Baltimore; in most other communities, there would have been no trial of the police officer; here he went to trial and was found guilty of manslaughter.

The powerful role that Isaiah Williams played in that celebrated case no doubt added to Marshall's family folklore about the abuses that stemmed from police entering private homes without permission and, indeed, you'll see throughout Thurgood Marshall's career the strong sense that people have a right to be protected no matter what their race, religion or ethic background.

When Marshall died five years ago, people felt somehow, and I think he felt somehow, that he was less than an important figure in America. But I can assure you after eight years of work on this book, that Thurgood Marshall stands as one of the giants, not only of this century, but of all American history.

In fact, someone said to me that when they think of great lawyers in American history, they think of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster and Thurgood Marshall as people who truly changed the way that we live . . . that the way we live is a function of the laws and the vision that he grew up with in Baltimore and then was able to extend to the rest of the country.

There's a quote I use right here at the start of the book. It comes from the Washington Afro-American and was used on the occasion of Justice Marshall's death, it reads: "We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but everyday we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall."

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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