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Book News

He brought about a dream of equality

'Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary'
by Juan Williams

Times Books, $27.50

Review by Robert Nebel

(CNN) -- 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 reality.

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 townspeople.

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.

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