Williams' 'Thurgood Marshall': true revolutionary

October 18, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN STAFF

"Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary," by Juan Williams. Times Books (Random House). 404 pages. $27.50.

No one - not even Martin Luther King Jr. - is more a folk hero to African-Americans than Baltimore's own, Thurgood Marshall. And justly so: It was Marshall who fashioned the legal strategy that finally began the dismantling of racial segregation in American life.

And it was Marshall, civil rights lawyer, federal judge, government advocate, and the first of his race to become a Supreme Court justice, who bequeathed a potential life of equality to even the poorest in the most neglected and pathetic ghetto. His vision was as hopeful as it was bold and brash, and he is deserving of the title "American Revolutionary."

He also deserves a biography of monumental dimensions, one that has power, sweep, depth and grace. A book-length exercise in journalism about Marshall is not that book. Juan Williams, a Washington Post reporter, magazine writer and television personality, has done a newspaper-style series and strung it out far enough to make a book. Only the concluding chapter, a coda of only eight pages titled "Resurrection," begins to hint at what might have been.

Consider, for example, these promising sentences from that final chapter: "The young Thurgood Marshall's experiences in this unique city [Baltimore] were the foundation for his advocacy of equal treatment. It led him to realize that the law was the only tool for resolving the damning racial problems confronting America in the aftermath of legal slavery."

But, back in the chapters that deal with Marshall's years in Baltimore, Williams gives us a succession of not well connected events, places, names - and very little historical context. He has done his journalistic legwork well, gathering the facts, and interviewing widely. No one who was important in Marshall's life, it seems, is overlooked.

But this reader ached to know what else was happening in that time to shape not only Thurgood's Old West Baltimore origins, but America at large, and the role of race in the nation's life at that time. The book fails in this respect in its description of every phase of Marshall's life. Williams lurches from phase to phase, his theme meandering through historical vacuums.

The author, who had unbelievably open access to Marshall's family, friends and associates, FBI files, Supreme Court colleagues, and, indeed, to Marshall himself, has dwelled so singularly on the facts and events in which Marshall was immersed that this giant historical figure must struggle to rise above the minutiae.

And yet, while Williams' journalistic eye remains focused on Marshall, the reader is forced to conclude that anecdote always takes the place of penetrating analysis, and the real Marshall simply is not there.

Perhaps the most unsatisfactory part of the book covers one of the most puzzling and troubling aspects of Marshall's life - the role of secret informer for the FBI. Williams' explanation is maddeningly superficial.

If the book has a strong part, it is the discussion of the in-fighting within the NAACP as Marshall became a powerhouse in the organization: his jousting, first, with Walter White, and, later, with Robert Carter. Even there, sadly, it is up to the reader to supply the conclusions and the insight.

Lyle Denniston has covered the U.S. Supreme Court and matters of justice for The Sun since 1981. Before that he covered the Supreme Court for the Washington Star and the Wall Street Journal. In his 40 years of writing about the Supreme Court, he has covered one out of every four justices to sit on the court.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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