A Powerful Book About Thurgood Marshall

by John Goodspeed

by Juan Williams
New York and Toronto: Times
Books/Random House. Illus.
Index. 459 pages. $27.50.
ISBN 0-8129-2028-7

     It’s not surprising that Juan Williams, a well-known D.C. journalist, idolizes the subject of his excellent new biography, the celebrated Maryland civil rights attorney and historic first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993). It may surprise fans of both men, though, to read Williams’s judgment that, in the long run, by winning lawsuit rulings that integrated public schools and promoted equal rights in courts, legislatures, hospitals, etc., Marshall did more to improve the lot of African-Americans than Martin Luther King, Jr. did with beautiful sermons and non-violent demonstrations, or Malcolm X or similar militants did with riots and threatening speeches.
     Marshall’s public posture and pronouncements remained 100% pro-African-American--as well as integrationist--all his life, one gathers. In private, though, he thought--according to Williams--that King was an inept, somewhat irresponsible administrator who, among other shortcomings, didn’t account for some fairly substantial donations to his cause.
     As for radical Malcolm X, Marshall described him as “a damned pimp.” The segregationist Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) he called “a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails.” And he was no fan of Marcus Garvey, who advocated emigration back to Africa--or Jesse Jackson, a “self-promoter.”
     Marshall was also very anti-Communist. He believed the Communist Party wanted to set aside a segregated state for African-Americans, so he wanted to prevent Communists from holding office in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, his principal client.
     To that end, according to this book (and this will surprise a lot of readers), Marshall informed on some NAACP members to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and maintained a fairly friendly (never-before-revealed) correspondence with, of all people, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director. Hoover was of no help, Marshall said later, and, according to Williams, a known Communist was elected to NAACP county leadership in North Carolina during the Red Scare period in this country.
     Another surprise (to this reviewer at any rate): as U.S. Solicitor General (appointed by President Lyndon Johnson), Marshall argued against requiring police to immediately read an arrested person’s right to remain silent, right to have a lawyer, etc. “It is essential to the protection of society,” Marshall said, “that law enforcement officers be permitted to interrogate an arrested person. An inflexible Constitutional rule [about] the presence or absence of council [sic] or on the recitation or omission of a warning...will, more often than not, cast out the baby with the bath water.”
     But in 1966 the Supreme Court ruled otherwise--in Miranda v. Arizona--and U.S. cops have ever since been required to read those rights aloud as they snap the cuffs on you. Anyone who has been arrested or has watched TV cop shows knows that. But--has the so-called Miranda Rule thrown out the baby (an individual right) with the bath water (community protection), as Marshall suggested? Juan Williams suggests in Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary that it has not--that the crime rate, in other words, hasn’t been affected by the Miranda Rule. TV drama certainly has, though; the detectives always recite it on “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”
     After Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court (also by President Johnson), he dissented from a 5-to-4 affirmative action decision case that was won by a white student who was refused admission to a California medical school while minority students with lower grades were admitted. Some Jewish groups, presumably motivated by quotas that discriminated against Jews at some medical schools in the past, argued for the white student’s admission. “They were playing with the word ‘quota’,” Marshall complained years later. He favored affirmative action for blacks but maybe not so much for others.
     Williams, himself a black, says: “Where Marshall’s grand construct of American race relations most strongly comes into question is in affirmative action....the conversation over race is no longer just between a once-enslaved black minority and a white majority. Hispanics and Asians now share a larger percentage of the population than blacks...a different America than Thurgood Marshall imagined.”
     Marshall was born in segregated Baltimore and went to segregated public schools there (with Cab Calloway), but he didn’t suffer abject poverty. At one time and another, his father was a B&O dining car waiter and head steward at a club on segregated Gibson Island, Anne Arundel County--both then considered elite jobs for blacks. Thurgood’s ambitious and well organized mother saw to it that their sons, Marshall and his older brother Aubrey, were both graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and that Thurgood (“Thoroughgood” on his birth certificate) became a lawyer and Aubrey a physician. Aubrey worked much of his later life in Wilmington, Delaware.
     Marshall, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing fraternity boy at Lincoln, found his social conscience at Howard Law School in D.C. He participated, as attorney or judge, in at least 75 important cases and may be, as Williams implies, the most important U.S. lawyer in this century.
     Two years before Marshall died, a judgment written by Terry Eastland in the Justice’s hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, was (not at all surprisingly, in this reviewer’s opinion) not so nice. “Justice Thurgood Marshall,” Eastland wrote for the July 1, 1991 edition, “will be lucky to rank somewhere in the middle of the 105 Supreme Court justices who have served the United States....He was not an intellectual force.”
     Of course not. Marshall was just a great lawyer.

      John Goodspeed, formerly an Evening Sun writer, now lives on the Eastern Shore.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on Apr. 7, 1999.