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Native Son

THURGOOD MARSHALL: American Revolutionary.\o7 By Juan Williams (Times Books: 460 pp., $27.50)\f7

October 04, 1998|LINDA MATHEWS | Linda Mathews, who covered the Supreme Court for The Times from 1972 to 1976, is now senior national editor of USA Today

Thurgood Marshall is not nearly as famous today as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. But Juan Williams thinks Marshall should be. As Williams contends in his well-reported, engaging biography, "Thurgood Marshall," of "the three leading black liberators," Marshall had "the biggest impact on American race relations." Williams quotes an editorial that ran after Marshall's death in 1993: "We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall."

Marshall will go down in the history books, of course, as the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court. Williams' thesis is that Marshall's place in history was secured long before he was named to the court in 1967, during the decades he spent as chief counsel of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "It was Marshall who ended legal segregation in the United States," Williams declares. Marshall and the NAACP mounted the court cases that methodically whittled away at the legal apartheid that dominated American life in the first half of this century.

At mid-century, Marshall was one of the country's best-known blacks, profiled in newspapers and magazines, honored often as "the man of the year," even gossiped about in the tabloids. To cap his career, he coveted a seat on the high court. Oddly, his fame faded once he achieved that goal and so, arguably, did his influence. The Supreme Court, the most cloistered of institutions, was not to his liking. Instead of being the grand strategist of racial integration, the lawyer whose cunning and charm won over judges and commanded headlines, Marshall suddenly found himself the junior justice, his vote just one of nine on an increasingly conservative court. By 1976, after such Republican justices as Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined the court, Marshall was on the losing end of many 5 to 4 votes; his voice was heard primarily in dissent.

In looking at the long spectrum of Marshall's career, Williams focuses not on Marshall's unhappy court tenure but on the justice's youth in segregated Baltimore and his hugely productive years with the NAACP. A longtime Washington Post reporter and a panelist on Fox News Sunday, Williams paints Marshall as a genial man who never set out to be a trailblazer but found a cause he believed in and then caught fire, exceeding his own expectations.

When Marshall decided to go to law school in 1930, the University of Maryland would have been the logical choice; it was free and close to his home in Baltimore. But Maryland, like most universities across the South, was racially segregated, and Marshall didn't even bother to apply. Instead he enrolled at all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., though it meant leaving home at 5 a.m. every day to catch the train for the 40-mile commute and usually returning well after dinner time. His mother pawned her engagement and wedding rings to pay the tuition.

By any measure, hers was a sound investment. Howard University and the formidable dean of its struggling law school, Charles Hamilton Houston, transformed Marshall from a fun-loving fraternity prankster, an affable college boy content to play pinochle all night, into arguably the most important lawyer of the 20th century.

The story of Marshall's transformation forms the core of this biography. Houston, a tough-minded, Harvard-trained intellectual who disdained anything slapdash, was Marshall's mentor for 20 years, first in law school and then at the NAACP. Houston took him on fact-finding missions across the South in the 1930s and awakened in him "a sense of what was wrong in the world," Williams writes. In his easy-going way, Marshall had always accepted the precepts of Jim Crow; he was no rebel. But on his travels with Houston, Marshall for the first time saw racial injustice and poverty on a scale he had never known in Baltimore and began to think about how "a lawyer could reshape society," Williams notes.

Just two years out of law school, Marshall showed the first signs of the revolutionary he would ultimately become. He filed the lawsuit that forced the University of Maryland Law School to admit blacks; it was the first of many precedent-setting victories. Ultimately Marshall took 32 cases to the Supreme Court and won 29 of them, a record equaled by only a handful of advocates.

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., the landmark 1954 decision dismantling separate-but-equal public schools for blacks and whites, was perhaps his best-known case. But Marshall's victories included many other pillars of constitutional law, among them decisions eliminating all-white primary elections (Smith vs. Allwright) and all-white juries (Patton vs. Mississippi) and outlawing the use of restrictive covenants in deeds to block property sales to blacks and Jews (Shelley vs. Kraemer).

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