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From the Jewish library: ‘Thurgood Marshall’

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, by Juan Williams, Times Books, 1998

By Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO — There are pivotal moments in history when the entire culture and future of a people and/or a country are forever changed.  The 1954 Supreme Court decision in “Brown v Board of Education” was such a moment.  It overturned the previous 1896 Supreme Court decision – Plessy v Ferguson – which held that it was legal to have separate but equal education for black and white children.  Now, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled that separate could not be equal.

Thurgood Marshall was the courageous attorney who successfully argued the case for the NAACP-LDF (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Legal Defense Fund).  Over the years, he won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court – a truly stellar record.

As a child, he had been taught by his father, William Marshall, to treat everyone with respect and in return to expect the same.  He was not to allow an  insult, such as the use of racial slur, to go unchallenged.

At fifteen Marshall was employed part time by ‘Mr. Schoen, a Jewish man,’ to deliver women’s hats.  One day, balancing boxes of hats, he struggled to get onto a crowded bus and ended up colliding with a white woman.  A white man grabbed his collar and when Marshall said: “Damn it, I’m just trying to get onto the bus.” The man responded: “………..(racial slur), don’t you talk to me like that.” They became physically confrontational but it was Marshall who was arrested.  His employer came to the police station to rescue him.  Though all the hats had been destroyed, Mr. Schoen assured Marshall that challenging the insult was the correct thing to do.

Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1908. His father was a railroad porter and his mother, a teacher.  Though he maintained a B average, his school record was marred by constant misbehavior.  However, at some point he seriously decided to study law.  Unable to enter the segregated University of Maryland Law School, he attended Howard University Law School, graduating in 1933, first in his class.  In 1929 he married.

Black attorneys in private practice faced huge challenges.  Law firms would not hire them and often black clients wanted white attorneys believing that they would be more successful in courtrooms dominated by white judges and jurors.  To earn a living Marshall began doing legal work for the NAACP-LDF.

In 1936 the NAACP made passage of an anti-lynching law a priority and put Marshall in charge.  Though it seemed obvious that a law to stop this barbarity was needed – it proved to be unattainable.  Democrat Senator Millard Tydings, of Maryland, Marshall’s home state, refused to support the law as did Democrat President F. D. Roosevelt.  It was a harbinger of the difficulties ahead.

An early victory for Marshall was a suit brought by the NAACP-LDF in 1944, to force the Democrat Party to allow blacks to vote in Democrat primary elections. Claiming to be a private club, the Democrat Party said it could keep black citizens from voting in Democrat primary elections.  Democrats controlled the “Solid South” and instituted several methods to intimidate the black vote: poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership, etc.

Initially Marshall did not sue to desegregate schools – but pressed to have “separate but equal” education (Plessy v Ferguson) fully implemented. He felt that if the states were forced to have two entirely separate but equal facilities they would face bankruptcy and therefore prefer to integrate.

However, the burden upon the NAACP in time and money to ensure that each school – especially in the southern states – was in full compliance was overwhelming.  Marshall was often on the road, his life often in jeopardy.  He then decided to use the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to seek full integration (Brown v Board of Education).

Democrat Governors such as Faubus in Arkansas and Wallace in Alabama, plus mayors, sheriffs, etc., throughout the South actively blocked implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision and physically threatened Marshall and other representatives of the NAACP who contested the Jim Crow laws.

Integration of America’s schools spilled over to other aspects of life: housing, career opportunities, travel – even how one shopped for the daily necessities of life.  These issues affected other groups as well such as Jews, Hispanics and Irish who were often constrained by housing covenants and college entrance quotas. Marshall’s success changed the fabric of life in America.

Marshall was nominated to the bench by two Democrat presidents: in 1961 to the Federal Appeals Court by John F. Kennedy and then in 1967 to the Supreme Court by Lyndon B. Johnson.  Senator Eastland, Democrat of Mississippi and Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the compliance of a Democrat controlled senate, delayed action on Marshall’s Appeals Court nomination for over ten months.

Though eventually confirmed, all the senators who voted against Marshall were Democrats.  Their animosity toward him for his work with the NAACP-LDF never abated and continued through the years and showed in the final tally of the vote for Marshall’s nomination to the Supreme Court:  Democrats voting nay – ten; Republicans voting nay – one. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Justice on the Supreme Court.

Marshall’s success in the courtroom was less evident in his social life.  His first marriage disintegrated.  He drank heavily, there were extra-marital affairs, frequent occurrences of loud vulgar behavior, and many of his professional relationships were damaged by jealousy, clashing egos, contentious personal agendas, acrimony and feuds.  As he aged he grew even more cantankerous; seeing everything through the prism of racial bias even when the intent was to honor him.

He publically lashed out at anyone, including the other Supreme Court Justices, who did not agree with him on various issues such as the use of quotas as part of affirmative action.  Several Jewish attorneys working at the NAACP felt his wrath.  Jews had suffered for many years under quotas in higher education which strictly limited enrollment of Jewish students and were against its use.

Marshall retired in 1991 and died in 1993.

Author Juan Williams has written for many publications and is at present on Fox News both as a commentator on “Special Report” and as a regular participant on “The Five” where he usually represents the Democrat point of view.

This 404 page book is a real tour de force and is very highly recommended. Williams’ diligent research is obvious in his writing.  I can’t recall reading another biography so well prepared and researched.

The reader will find:

An Introduction describing the author’s intent and methodology

Index – 18 pages

Cited – 91 principal legal cases

Six pages of “Resources and Bibliography”

Interviewed – 99 different people plus Williams interviewed Marshall almost every week over 6 months

Researched – 26 oral history archives at 9 different universities or other entities

26 different archival libraries

34 different newspapers

16 Journals/Magazines

5 Dissertations/Theses

51 Books

1 Manuscript

Notes: 25 pages of sourced notes linked by number to the text

Acknowledgments – approximately 200 people, organizations and universities are cited.

Marshall family tree


Orysiek is a freelance writer who specializes in the arts and literature.  She may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)



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