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Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.

Juan Williams has written an impressive biography entitled Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (Times Books, 1998) about the first black Supreme Court justice and the civil-rights movement he helped shape. I got to know Williams as he was working on the book, appearing with him many times during the last year on the Fox News Channel, and I was very curious to see the fruits of his labor. Williams, like Marshall, has stirred up his share of controversy. He and I sit together on the left side of the panel in political debates. But he also surprises me by agreeing with conservatives on many issues. As a columnist for The Washington Post, he defended Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas against feminist critics, deriding Anita Hill's sexual-harassment charges. That position enraged the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and cost Williams access to the group's files while he was writing the book.

In spite of such obstacles, he has written a terrifically engaging biography. Hours of interviews with Marshall--and with the people who knew him--helped Williams put together a wealth of personal anecdotes that illuminate the man and his era. He tells about Marshall's early days in Baltimore, his struggles with Jim Crow, and his personal victory over Maryland Law School, when he won the desegregation case against the school that had once kept him out.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Marshall went to New York City to work for the NAACP. He traveled throughout the South, investigating appalling crimes against blacks and winning a Supreme Court case that banned all-white primaries. In the process, he was threatened and very nearly lynched. He also argued a series of cases defending black men who were unjustly accused of raping white women. I was reminded of a remark Williams made when Army Sergeant Gene McKinney was facing court-martial last year, to the effect that no black man could get a fair trial on rape charges. At the time, it seemed absurd to me. But in the context of the history he must have been researching, it does not.

Williams takes a thoughtful, unflinching look at Marshall's "intense, unpublicized dance" with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hounded Martin Luther King Jr., and other black leaders. And, while revealing Marshall's weaknesses and betrayals, he paints a sympathetic portrait of the man who won a series of landmark legal decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Perhaps the most controversial and difficult part of Marshall's life is his split with civil-rights leaders, including "that preacher" Martin Luther King Jr., and W.E.B. Du Bois. Marshall helped drive Du Bois out of the NAACP because of alleged communist sympathies.

Marshall was ultimately left behind by the movement he helped generate. He feared the civil-rights demonstrators would destroy what he had achieved through the legal system. "For American Negroes ... to start disobeying laws on the grounds that it was against their conscience would set it all back," he said.

It's interesting that Marshall became increasingly radical in his old age. Embittered by the rightwing direction of the Court, and particularly the Bakke decision reversing affirmative action, he spoke out against Reagan, Bush, and his conservative colleagues, shocking the Washington establishment.

He refused to take part with the other Justices in a reenactment of the signing of the Constitution, telling them if they wanted to recreate history, they'd have him appear in short pants serving coffee. He announced to the world that the Constitution was fundamentally flawed, since it sanctioned slavery and disenfranchised women. He extended a hand to some of his former antagonists in the civil-rights movement. He also took up a broad definition of civil rights that included the rights of prisoners and the poor, and a powerful, principled opposition to the death penalty.

In the end, Williams credits Marshall with doing more for black people and for all Americans than any of the protesters or marchers of the 1950s and 1960s, including King. Whether he was more important than those other towering figures hardly matters now. He was certainly an indispensable, complex, and fascinating man. His life story is a crucial piece of history.

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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