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Native Son

<i> Linda Mathews, who covered the Supreme Court for The Times from 1972 to 1976, is now senior national editor of USA Today</i>

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.

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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.

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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).

Williams, in recreating the endless strategy sessions that developed into Brown vs. Board of Education, captures Marshall at the very top of his game. “Thurgood had an incredible gift,” one underling told Williams. “He’d have his feet up on the table, with all these learned minds around him, in awe of him. He’d make them feel at home. He would pull out from other people their thinking, and he synthesized it and made it his.”

Williams, who wrote the book that accompanied the Public Broadcasting System’s documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” was granted unusual access to the justice. Marshall detested most reporters, but from mid-1989 until the end of the year, he invited Williams to his chambers at the court for almost weekly interviews, and the result is a rollicking tale.

What emerges from those sessions are the memories of a world-class storyteller, a man who regularly faced down Southern sheriffs, came close to being lynched, made President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforce the desegregation order in Little Rock, collaborated with longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and feuded with everyone from Bobby Kennedy to his own top assistants at the NAACP.

Arrested by menacing police officers in small-town Tennessee in 1946, Marshall was brought before a Tennessee judge on a trumped-up drunk-driving charge. The judge said, “Boy, you wanna take my test? I never had a drink in my life, and I can smell a drink a mile off.” Marshall said he instantly forgot all of his legal training, so he just blew into the judge’s face so hard that the judge rocked back in his chair. “That man hasn’t had a drink in 24 hours,” the judge roared at the cops.

Marshall slipped out the door, eluded the lynch mob that had been awaiting him and made it to Nashville, where he promptly called then-Atty. Gen. Tom Clark to report his close call. “When I told him I was arrested for drunk driving, Tom said, ‘Well, were you drunk?’ I said, ‘No, but five minutes after I talk to you. . . .’ ”

For years, Marshall criticized the FBI for doing too little to stop the lynchings of Southern blacks. But by the mid-1950s, Marshall had formed an alliance with Hoover that, Williams says, “was as strategic as any of his courtroom maneuvers.” Quoting FBI files and other sources, Williams says that Marshall traded information about militants inside the civil rights movement for FBI help in keeping Communists out of the NAACP.

Marshall also insisted on hogging credit for most of the NAACP’s victories, though Williams makes it clear that the best ideas were not always his own. It was Spottswood Robinson, later an appeals court judge in Washington, who first suggested in the early 1950s that the NAACP press the Supreme Court to abolish school segregation. Marshall and others equally cautious had been willing to settle for less, perhaps a pronouncement that black schools must be as well-equipped as white ones.

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Marshall got along better with the FBI and other law enforcement officers than he did with other black leaders. He criticized King’s civil disobedience as “rhetorical fluff” and rejected Malcolm X’s talk of a separate black nation as “racist craziness,” Williams reports. Nor did Marshall have much use for Bobby Kennedy; as attorney general, Kennedy had authorized wide-reaching wiretaps, then refused to admit as much to the Supreme Court.

With President Lyndon B. Johnson, Marshall felt a special kinship, and not just because LBJ nominated him as the nation’s solicitor general, the Justice Department’s advocate before the high court, and two years later made history by putting him on the court. Marshall was in and out of the White House as Johnson sought his advice “on many things having nothing to do with civil rights,” one friend told Williams. The two men “really got along, they both had that hearty laugh, they were both gutsy and could tell stories.” When Williams asked Marshall about those conversations decades later, the justice said, “We talked about a lot of things that I ain’t gonna talk about.”

Williams touts Marshall as a courtroom genius, on a par with Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, but he is not blind to the great man’s failings. Marshall was flagrantly unfaithful to his first wife, left the upbringing of his two children to his second wife, chain-smoked, overate and, by the time he reached the high court, had a full-blown drinking problem. In his last years on the court, bitter and alienated, he sometimes arrived at 10 a.m. and was gone by 3 p.m.

Marshall felt isolated on the court’s left wing and completely unappreciated. He was close to only two justices: the very liberal William Brennan and Sandra Day O’Connor, whom he liked because, as the first woman on the court, she was also a pioneer. Careful about guarding the court’s confidences, Marshall was distressed when one colleague, the garrulous Potter Stewart, related unflattering tales about Marshall’s supposed laziness and reliance on his law clerks to reporters Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong for their revealing portrait of the court, “The Brethren.”

By 1980, Carter administration officials hinted that Marshall should resign to make way for a younger, fitter liberal. He resisted, saying he intended to “stay for the length of my term, which is life.” In 1991, his failing health forced him to retire. President Bush named as his replacement Clarence Thomas, whose neoconservative views seemed to mock Marshall’s.

Williams’ command of the court years seems shaky, especially compared to his smoothly entertaining, sometimes riveting account of the justice’s earlier career. He omits some of the justice’s significant 1st Amendment opinions and compresses some masterful dissents on school busing and affirmative action that deserve more attention. And Williams never considers what might have happened if Marshall, so politically attuned as a lawyer, had been willing to horse trade and compromise on the bench.

At his death, even law professors critical of his Supreme Court writing celebrated Marshall’s extraordinary life. Williams quotes those who hailed Brown vs. Board of Education as the most significant case of the century as well as those who believed Marshall was never much of an intellectual force on the bench. One of the most moving tributes comes from Yale professor Paul Gewirtz, commending Marshall’s “heroic imagination.”

“Here’s someone who grows up in a society with a ruthlessly pervasive racism and who imagines a radically different world and then goes about bringing it into being,” Gewirtz said. Thurgood Marshall “really changed the world, something few lawyers can say.”

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