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He brought about a dream of equality
'Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary'
by Juan Williams
Times Books, $27.50
Review by Robert Nebel
While much of this century's social change for African-Americans is credited to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and many others, a number of other African-American leaders have been under their shadow. Chief among them is Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
In "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary", author Juan
Williams ("Eyes on the Prize") educates the reader about the
achievements of a man who made "the dream of equality" a legal
Throughout the biography, Williams recounts an important theme
of an African-American hero who did not participate in non-violent
marches or protests, but instead set the wheels of change in motion.
In a brilliant chronological fashion, Williams simply and vividly
tells us about the scores of important court cases that changed the
way of life for African Americans forever. From Marshall's first
civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson in 1935 to his landmark victory
in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, the author tell us of a man
who humbly and intelligently worked within a justice system that
turned a deaf ear to segregation and discrimination.
Williams points out the many obstacles that Marshall faced
throughout his life. Change did not come easy. As segregation ended
in the sixties, many southern states resisted it. Marshall traveled to
the south during those treacherous days to not only assist in
implementing desegregation, but also to try court cases for
minorities. On many occasions, Marshall had to deal with
segregationist leaders, corrupt local sheriffs and judges, and unruly
J. Edgar Hoover presented another challenge to Marshall. The FBI
director felt that Marshall had Communist ties. It was an uphill
battle for Marshall as he had to constantly prove that he was
anti-Communist. It was a characteristic that plagued Marshall
throughout his career -- even through a difficult Senate confirmation to appointment on the Supreme Court.
The biography solidly and explicitly
describes how Marshall climbed what seemed an impossible career ladder from his early years
as a struggling yet aggressive trial lawyer at the NAACP's Legal
Defense Fund to U.S. solicitor general and, finally, to an appointment
to the high court. In doing so, Williams argues, Marshall who not only changed
the course of civil rights but also changed the landscape of the
United States judicial system.
Williams paints a portrait of a man who was a natural pioneer.
At times, the biography's repeat depiction of Marshall's casual style
in and out of the courtroom undermine the importance of his vast
achievements. Nevertheless, that's what Thurgood Marshall was all
about -- a cool, calm, social gentleman who knew how to work within the
justice system's limits in order to reshape it.
Even though Marshall was the first African-American
appointed to the high court, his personal life was sometimes
wrought with character issues that would not survive in today's media
machine. Stories of philandering, heavy drinking, smoking and
gambling fill many of the pages of "Thurgood Marshall: American
Revolutionary". But in the end, what this justice was judged by was his commitment to the nation's judicial system.
Robert Nebel is a video editor at CNN. He is also an Atlanta-based freelance writer who specializes in theater, film and book reviews.