Larry S. Gibson's book on Thurgood Marshall examines the forces in Baltimore that shaped young judge

'Young Thurgood,' which sheds new light on the first 30 years of the former justice's life, has been endorsed by Marshall's family

November 30, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Forty-three years of letters, photographs, campaign buttons, itineraries and the occasional miniature flag are crammed into 2,000 fat binders lining three walls — floor to ceiling — of a storage room in the University of Maryland School of Law.

They amount to a meticulous chronicle of Larry S. Gibson's professional life from 1965, when he was still a law student, to 2008, when he was active in a presidential election in Ghana.

And that doesn't include 160 binders worth of material that's still in boxes, plus 200 more at Gibson's home and his law school office.

He can flip open any of the spiral-bound books at random and remember what he was doing that day: Working to elect Kurt L. Schmoke, serving as President Jimmy Carter's assistant deputy attorney general, or lobbying to have Baltimore's airport renamed in honor of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to be appointed to the nation's highest court.

No wonder the man needs 2,360 binders.

In recent years, Gibson has neglected his personal archives and turned his attention to Marshall's. His new biography, "Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice," has received glowing praise from the jurist's family. The 413-page book includes interviews and other material that Gibson, 70, has been gathering since the night in 1975 when he first pounded on the door of Marshall's home in Northern Virginia.

"He was different than what I'd been led to expect," Gibson says. "He was more jovial and had fonder recollections of Maryland. He had a better sense of humor. Over the years, I kept reading things in the media that did not match up with my impressions of him.

"Finally in 2002, the dean of the law school, Karen Rothenberg, said, 'I'm tired of hearing you complain that no one understands Marshall but you. Why don't you write a book and set the record straight?"

Marshall has been the subject of several major biographies, plus a Broadway play (and 2011 television movie) starring Laurence Fishburne. But Gibson's biography is the first to focus exclusively on the forces in Baltimore and Maryland that helped shape Marshall's first 30 years.

Gibson's hobby is photography, a subject on which he is eloquent. (As he puts it: "Photography is the closest thing there is to immortality. It preserves a moment that is never going to be repeated.") So it's not surprising that "Young Thurgood" has a camera-like focus that registers both foreground and background. There's a section on Marshall's high school debates, another on an influential science teacher and a third on how Maryland coped with the Depression.

"I wanted to introduce the true individual to the public," Gibson says, "and that includes the environment he grew up in. This book is as much about Maryland as it is about Thurgood Marshall."

Gibson is known for his strongly held opinions and for advocating tirelessly for the causes in which he believes. Nonetheless, he places immense importance on factual accuracy. For Gibson, a fact is as rough-edged and weighty as a brick. Stack a bunch of them together, and you build something that will stand for all time.

Schmoke, who has known Gibson since the late 1960s, said that his former campaign manager excelled at data analysis.

"Larry did the initial polling work when I first ran for state's attorney," Schmoke says.

"The results came back, and it appeared that I was going to get trounced. Larry sorted through the data and came to the conclusion that we were going to be able to close a 20-point gap between May and mid-September and win the election. And we did. He had it all figured out."

So perhaps it's not surprising that Thurgood Marshall Jr. says he learned new things about his father from Gibson's book.

"Gosh, this book is just amazing," Marshall says over the phone from his Washington law office. "On every page are stories that are filled with detail that we didn't know anything about."

Marshall appreciates that Gibson's book corrects misconceptions about his father — in particular, that the late justice harbored a grudge against his hometown. Nothing, Marshall says, could be further from the truth.

"One thing that Professor Gibson does very well," Marshall says, "is to demonstrate the people and the experiences that caused Baltimore to have a hold on my father that lasted all his life."

At 11 p.m. on July 1, 1975, Gibson and another attorney went to Marshall's home to ask the justice to intervene on behalf of former Baltimore schools Superintendent Roland Patterson, who was about to be fired. Marshall, in his bathrobe, invited the young men inside. They stayed until 2 a.m.

"I view 'Young Thurgood' as a story about a partnership between two men," says Ron Shapiro, Gibson's law partner and, since 1967, his best friend. "I think that Justice Marshall saw something in Larry that made him think that was a guy he should give some time to.

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