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Authors: Juan Williams

Thurgood Marshall

BOOK: Thurgood Marshall
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Eyes on the Prize

Copyright © 1998 by Juan Williams

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Williams, Juan.
  Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary/Juan Williams.
      p.    cm.
   eISBN: 978-0-307-78612-8
   1. Marshall, Thurgood, 1908–1993. 2. Judges—United States—Biography. 3. United States. Supreme Court—Biography. 4. Civil rights workers—United States—Biography. I. Title.
KF8745.M34W55     1998
[B]            98-9735

Random House website address:


To Roger and Alma Williams;
the Episcopal Church; Brooklyn, New York, public schools;
Oakwood Friends School; Haverford College;
The Washington Post;
Delise, Antonio, Rae, and Raphael.

For inquire, I pray of you, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have found.… Will they not teach you, and tell you, and utter words out of their understanding?

—Job 8:8-10


go to Christopher L. Teal, my research assistant. His energy, commitment, and passion for this biography were a constant source of encouragement. His talent and hard work made a valuable contribution to this book. His keen criticism, good sense, and friendship kept the writing on track. My hope is that he will go on to enjoy a career as a writer.

Special thanks to the Ford Foundation, the Marjorie Kovler Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Brookings Institution, American University, Eastern Illinois University, and Georgetown University; to researcher Jane McWilliams, a guiding light through Maryland history; to Jonathan Karp, an insightful mind and terrific editor; to Peter Bernstein and Carie Freimuth, the strong, supportive publishing team at Times Books; to Sybil Pincus, production editor; to Mary Beth Roche, director of publicity, and Kate Larkin; and to Amy K. Sutton, marketing manager for Random House.

My personal thanks to Russell Adams; Mufutau Adeleke; Roger Ailes; Jodie Allen; Ben Amini; Esme Bahn; Robert Barnett; Sue Bennett; Cherea Bishop; Lucille Blair; John Blassingame; Charles Blitzer; Rick Blondo; David Bogen; H. B. Bouma; Peter Braestrup; Taylor Branch; Gloria Branker; Philip Brown; John Buckstead; Patricia Camp; Nixon Camper; Adrienne Cannon; Clay Carson; Reese Cleeghorn; Lovida Coleman; Chet Collier; Lindsey Collins; Cary Beth Cryor; Rick Davis; Charles Debnam; Marvin Delany; Herbert Denton; Lucille Denton;
Joseph Duffy; Frank Ferraccio; Charles Firestone; Gail Galloway; David Garrow; Cheryl Gibert; Donald Graham; Ron Greile; Gina Wishnick Grossman; Joe Haas; Deborah Newman Ham; Louis Harlan; Kathleen A. Hauke; Michael Hicks; Doug Hock; Natalie Hohn; James Hudson; Britt Hume; Dennis J. Hutchinson; William Hyde; Donna and Marshall Jackson; Dante James; Pheobe Jacobson; Beat, Elena, Jonathan, and Alexandra Jenny; Jeanne Jordan; Tom Johnson; Raymond Jones; Michael Kelly; Damon Keith; Randall Kennedy; Ethel Kennedy; Linda Kloss; Whitman Knapp; Peter Kovler; Ken Kraven; Kim Lays; Theresa Layne; Michael Lacy; Rilda Lemons; Byron Lewis; Byron Lewis, Jr.; David L. Lewis; William and Cynthianna Lightfoot; James Loadholt; Norman Lockman; Dee Lyon; Ginger Macomber; Khalil Mahmud; Tom Mann; Ligia and Jonathan Mason; Wayland McClelland; Deborah McDowell; Jane McHale; Nancie McPhail; Ghebre Mehreteab; Courtland Milloy; Frances Murphy; Jocheol Nam; Barrett and Judy Nnoka; Prentice Nolan, Robert Novak; Susan Nugent; Gina Oglesby; Peter Osnos; Lesley Oelsner; Gayle Potter; Charlynn Spencer Pyne; Miriam Raymond; John David Reed; Olaf Reistrup; Chuck Richardson; Dr. Harry Robinson, Jr.; Marty Ryan; John Roper; Ann Sheffield; Tony Snow; Mrs. Stewart Symington; Fannie Smith; J. Clay Smith; Rod Smollah; Michael Sosler; Niara Sudarkasa; John Sununu; Brook Teal; Brook Thomas; Mark Tushnet; Vernon Thompson; Diane Thomson; Roberto Waithe; Lynn Walker; Joseph Walkes; Steve Wasserman; Dr. Arthur M. West; Dr. Arthur N., Chip, Marisa, and Arleathia West; Minna West; David Wigdor; Armstrong Williams; Roger, Chris, and Ashley Williams; John Wolter; Janet Sims-Wood; Robert Zangrando; and Li Zhao.


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

Washington Afro-American
after Thurgood Marshall’s death

made him one of America’s leading radicals. As a suit-and-tie lawyer, however, he was the unlikely leading actor in creating social change in the United States in the twentieth century. His great achievement was to expand rights for individual Americans. But he especially succeeded in creating new protections under law for America’s women, children, prisoners, homeless, minorities, and immigrants. Their greater claim to full citizenship in the Republic over the last century can be directly traced to Marshall. Even the American press has Marshall to thank for an expansion of its liberties during the century.

But for black Americans especially, Marshall stood as a colossus. He guided a formerly enslaved people along the road to equal rights. Oddly, of the three leading black liberators of twentieth-century America—Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—Marshall was the least well known. Dr. King gained fame as the inspiring advocate of nonviolence and mass protests. Malcolm X was the defiant black nationalist whose preachings about separatism and armed revolution were the other side of King’s appeals for racial peace. But the third man in this black triumvirate stood as the one with the biggest impact on American race relations.

It was Marshall who ended legal segregation in the United States. He won Supreme Court victories breaking the color line in housing, transportation, and voting, all of which overturned the “separate-but-equal” apartheid of American life in the first half of the century.

It was Marshall who won the most important legal case of the century,
Brown v. Board of Education
, ending the legal separation of black and white children in public schools. The success of the
case sparked the 1960s civil rights movement, led to the increased number of black high school and college graduates and the incredible rise of the black middle class in both numbers and political power in the second half of the century.

And it was Marshall, as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, who promoted affirmative action—preferences, set-asides, and other race-conscious policies—as the remedy for the damage remaining from the nation’s history of slavery and racial bias. Justice Marshall gave a clear signal that while legal discrimination had ended, there was more to be done to advance educational opportunity for blacks and to bridge the wide canyon of economic inequity between blacks and whites.

Marshall’s lifework, then, literally defined the movement of race relations through the century. He rejected King’s peaceful protest as rhetorical fluff, which accomplished no permanent change in society. And he rejected Malcolm X’s talk of violent revolution and a separate black nation as racist craziness in a multiracial society.

Instead Marshall was busy in the nation’s courtrooms, winning permanent changes in the rock-hard laws of segregation. He created a new legal landscape, where racial equality was an accepted principle. He worked in behalf of black Americans but built a structure of individual rights that became the cornerstone of protections for all Americans. Marshall’s triumphs led black people to speak of him in biblical terms of salvation: “He brought us the Constitution as a document like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments,” the NAACP board member Juanita Jackson Mitchell once said.

The key to Marshall’s work was his conviction that integration—and only integration—would allow equal rights under the law to take hold. Once individual rights were accepted, in Marshall’s mind, blacks and whites could rise or fall based on their own ability.

Marshall’s deep faith in the power of racial integration came out of a middle-class black perspective in turn-of-the-century Baltimore. He was the child of an activist black community that had established its own schools and fought for equal rights from the time of the Civil War. His own family, of an interracial background, had been at the forefront of demands by Baltimore blacks for equal treatment. Out of that unique family
and city was born Thurgood Marshall, the architect of American race relations in the twentieth century.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X both died young, the victims of assassins. They became martyrs to the nation’s racial wars. Thurgood Marshall lived to be eighty-four and was no one’s martyr. He held high public office, but for those last thirty years of his life Marshall was reclusive, making few public appearances and rarely talking with reporters. The public knew him primarily as a distant figure whose voice was heard only in the legalistic language of Supreme Court dissents.

I began writing to Marshall in the early 1980s, while working on a book to accompany the Public Broadcasting documentary
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965
. Marshall knew me as a writer for
The Washington Post
but declined my request to talk to him about his life. His family and friends persisted in asking the cloistered justice to tell his story. Eventually Marshall called and invited me to his Supreme Court chambers.

BOOK: Thurgood Marshall
9.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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