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Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

By Juan Williams

Thurgood Marshall.gifThurgood Marshall's greatness illuminates this biography, which concentrates on the personal experience of his legal career without neglecting his failings.
459 pages
Random House (1998)

Reviewed by: Heather R. Moss

Juan Williams's Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary chronicles the many fascinating episodes in the life and career of the Supreme Court justice. In short, dramatic chapters, Williams portrays the man behind the historical legend, lending personal detail to his triumphs, tenacious career, and personal failings. Williams conducted eight years of research and interviewed more than 150 sources in preparation, and in 1989 he interviewed Marshall in more than a dozen sessions over six months. What Williams was not able to do, however, was secure the cooperation of the NAACP, to whose legal battles Marshall had devoted much of his life, because Willams had publicly taken a different, more moderate view of Clarence Thomas than the organization had.

Marshall was no ordinary child. When he was six years old and getting ready to start the first grade, he decided to change his name. Marshall's birth name was Thoroughgood Marshall, and his nickname was Goody. He felt his first name was too long and complicated, and he disliked being teased for his nickname. He told everyone to start calling him Thurgood and even convinced his mother to change the name on his birth certificate.

His parents, William and Norma Marshall, were politically active members of the black middle class and lived in an integrated neighborhood in Baltimore. During much of his childhood, his parents did their best to shield Marshall from Jim Crow. When Marshall was a teenager, however, his parents could shield him no longer. Once when he was trying to board a trolley, he was accused of pushing in front of a white woman. A white male passenger pulled Marshall off the trolley, and a fight ensued. A police officer arrested Marshall, despite the fact that the other man had started the ruckus. Marshall's Jewish employer, for whom the young Marshall had been running an errand when boarding the trolley, went to the police station and defended Marshall. Only then did the police let him go. Marshall's legal career may be seen as dedicated to the advocacy of integration and opposition to separatism, and Williams indicates that Marshall's youth in one of the few integrated neighborhoods in America probably contributed to that position.

Marshall credited his arguments with his father as the basis for his idea of becoming a lawyer. Their debates sometimes crossed the line and became hostile when his father had been drinking. Marshall, unlike his brother, did not retreat from this hostility, and he was able to transfer the resolve he gained from arguing with his father into success as a high school and college debater. Before his college graduation, Marshall met and married Vivian Burey. After the wedding, Marshall's new wife went to live with his parents in Baltimore while he returned to complete his undergraduate education. He had his sights set on law school and hoped to be admitted to the University of Maryland. However, because of the school's segregationist admissions policies, he never applied. He turned his anger over segregation into motivation to get into law school.

Marshall was not pleased by his only other law school option, Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. He reluctantly accepted admission, and his mother pawned her wedding and engagement rings to help finance his education. Marshall became the top student in his first-year class, and later Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard's dean, took Marshall under his wing. Houston provided his top students the opportunity to work on real cases, which Marshall enjoyed.

After graduation, segregation limited Marshall's job opportunities. At the same time, the NAACP asked Houston to observe the quality of schools available to black children, in contemplation of a legal challenge to segregation in public schools. Marshall accompanied Houston throughout the South, and he was appalled by the despicable conditions. Marshall realized that he wanted to fight the evils of school segregation.

In 1935, on behalf of a black student who was denied admission, Marshall sued the University of Maryland, charging it with violating the Fourteenth Amendment, and won. Soon thereafter, in Texas, Marshall initiated Smith v. Allright, a case that received national attention. Marshall represented a black plaintiff who had been denied the right to vote in a primary election, and in April 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that white primaries were unconstitutional. To the end of Marshall's life, he said that the white primary case victory was the greatest of his career.

In the typical history book, however, Marshall's greatest victory came 10 years later with Brown v. Board of Education. He argued that segregation in the public schools humiliated black children, deprived them of equal status, and promoted self-hatred. He introduced sociological studies to demonstrate how segregation injured black children's self-images. His masterful use of sociological evidence was unprecedented. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and Marshall changed history.

Marshall the Man
Such stunning accomplishments tend to create legends out of human beings, and Williams makes a point of detailing Marshall's personal life. He notes that Marshall chain-smoked, drank, and did not exercise even as his health worsened. Because his first marriage was childless, he and Vivian grew distant, and he had a series of extramarital affairs.

His sexual relationship with Cecilia Suyat, his secretary at the NAACP, started while he was still married to his ailing first wife. Ten months after Marshall's first wife died, he married Suyat. She was Asian American, and on December 17, 1955, a press conference was held to announce the marriage and recognize Suyat as a member of the NAACP family. Shortly thereafter, Marshall and his new wife had two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John.

Perhaps the biography's most startling revelation is that Marshall had a longstanding political connection to J. Edgar Hoover, who often requested the files of cases that Marshall was handling. Marshall complied, although he was not so naive as to believe that the FBI's only concern was to prosecute criminal racists. Marshall's alliance with Hoover was strategic. Marshall, strongly anticommunist, made it clear that he and the NAACP were not involved with radicals, thereby protecting the NAACP from the FBI. In addition, his access to Hoover and the information they exchanged were advantageous for his legal battles.

The Supreme Court
Marshall's private ambition to become a judge became a reality when President Kennedy appointed him to the U. S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1961. Conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats stalled his confirmation, during and after which Marshall worried about every step he took, public and private. Additionally, life as an appellate judge did not inspire Marshall as his former courtroom battles had. After four years of dull cases, he longed for a change, which came when President Johnson offered him a position as the nation's first black solicitor general. In his new position, he was forced to handle cases that went against his inclination to represent the underdog. In Miranda v. Arizona, Marshall argued that disclosing constitutional rights to every defendant was burdensome to law enforcement agents. Miranda became Marshall's most notable defeat as solicitor general.

President Johnson cagily kept his plans to place the nation's greatest civil rights lawyer on the U.S. Supreme Court a secret as long as possible. After Marshall was surprised with his appointment, he joined the liberal majority and became the friend and ally of William Brennan, a fellow advocate of individual rights. In later years, as the Court became more conservative, Marshall became openly aggressive in trying to have his voice reflected in the Court's opinions. Toward the latter part of his life and career, Marshall suffered health problems that worsened his alienation and reclusiveness. By the late 1980s he was making his discontent with the other justices public. In 1991, Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, and he died in 1993.

Williams's book humanizes Marshall, whose legendary career was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. He protected individual rights, the press, and free speech. He supported prisoners' rights and opposed the death penalty. His stand against violence and militancy became a model for problem solving. He devoted his life to helping others and truly made a difference.

Heather R. Moss, a member of the Los Angeles Lawyer Editorial Board, practices criminal law in Pasadena.