As a student growing up in the United States, my classmates came from many different backgrounds. Some came from as far away as India and Korea. Others from Guyana and Dominican Republic. No matter where they came from, we were equal peers studying to enhance our lives through prosperity. However, only sixty-four years ago, the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson was still the law of the land which mandated that separate but equal facilities for White Americans and minorities were permitted under the constitution. One year later in 1964, events in Topeka, Kansas would change the course of United States history and catapult a young lawyer to legendary status. The case was Brown v. Board of Education and the lawyer was Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the late civil rights icon who attacked segregation and served on the United States Supreme Court for twenty-four years before retiring in 1991. The decision reversed the court’s earlier ruling in Brown and declared that separate but equal facilities were in fact unconstitutional in the United States. Today is name is rarely mentioned and the younger generation of Black Americans are growing up in an era vastly different from the one in which he was born and raised. But his life should be a case study for students of all backgrounds as a reminder of the enormous effort that was required to break the back of Jim Crow and move the Unites States forward.
Outside of classes in school, I never heard many discussions about Marshall. In college, a class I took revisited the Brown decision so that we could see the development of the privileges that I and others took for granted on a daily basis. But who was Thurgood Marshall? And behind the legal victories and appointment to the Supreme Court, what were the detail of his personal life? Juan Williams has composed this biography of what he appropriately calls an American Revolutionary. And what is contained in the pages of this book, is a story that lies at the heart of American society. Today, decades after the Brown decisions, millions of students in America attend classes with peers who come from different ethnic backgrounds and have the ability to enroll in schools which in prior times would have denied them entrance based on the color of their skin or the spelling and sound of their names.
The book is well researched and contains quotes by Marshall himself. From the beginning of his life to the end, Williams shows the good, bad and at times ugly of Marshall’s behavior. Like all great figures, he was also a man with flaws. But his dedication to his cause and victories in the courtroom propelled him forward as a champion of civil rights and earned him his appointment to the Supreme Court by then President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). It is an incredible story written in a thoroughly engaging fashion that leaves no stone un-turned and compels the reader to keep going. However, for all of Marshall’s victories, the regrettable moments in the book are his indiscretions and the brutal climate of prejudice that once encompassed the majority of the United States. The stories, particularly those in the Jim Crow era are heartbreaking and may cause the reader to wonder how human beings could treat others in such horrific ways. And the actions and courage of Marshall is commendable and inspiring.
As a sub-story to Marshall’s life, readers will pick up on the behind-the-scenes political battles that waged between Liberals, Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Promises, side deals and political agendas all take center stage as a brilliant African-American civil rights lawyer battled his way to the top, destined to cross paths with some of America’s most widely regarded historical figures such as Adam Clayton Powell (1908-1972), late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) and former President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).
When Marshall died, he had been in failing health and considered a “relic” by many of a dark distant past in America. At the time of his death, he might have been past his prime, but he remained until his last day, a living part of history and a first hand witness to the legal battles needed to challenge the establishment and ask what the constitution truly means to Americans of all colors. Juan Williams has chronicled and manifested Marshall’s life in this definitive biography of an American icon. Currently, America finds itself at another crossroads with division, mistrust and suspicion sowing chords of discontent. But as in previous times, the nation will survive and continue to move forward for there are many Thurgood Marshalls today, waging similar battles the many that he fought during his life. And in order to understand his life, Williams’ book is the place to start.