By Larry S. Gibson, Prometheus Books, Amherst, 413 pages, $28
Before he became chief counsel for the NAACP, U.S. solicitor general, and the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall was a fledgling young lawyer who struggled to begin a law practice in his hometown of Baltimore during the depths of the Great Depression. In his new book, Larry S. Gibson, a Baltimore attorney and law professor, tells the story of Marshall’s first 28 years before he moved to New York in 1936 to work in the NAACP’s national office.
Although the author could have done more with the rich material, he provides fascinating insights into the family life, education, relationships and mentors who shaped Marshall’s early life before he ascended to the national stage.
Born in 1908 in segregated Baltimore, Marshall was the younger of two sons of William and Norma Marshall, both of whom were the children of prominent local grocers in the city’s black community.
As recounted by the author, Marshall’s mother taught kindergarten in Baltimore’s segregated schools and, between the two parents, was the steadier breadwinner. The author describes how she also served as the family’s chief motivator, stressing to her sons the importance of sacrifice and education (Marshall’s older brother, Aubrey, became a physician). For many years, she used most of her earnings to pay her sons’ tuition bills for college, medical school, and law school.
During Marshall’s formative years, his father also had a large influence on his life. A waiter and steward, Marshall’s father loved to debate his youngest son on the latest political and racial issues. Later in life, Marshall credited his father with teaching him how to argue and refine his logic. Marshall stated that his father never told him to become a lawyer, but he turned him into one.
According to the author, Marshall’s first important mentor outside of his family was Gough McDaniels, who was a history teacher and debate coach at Marshall’s high school. A decorated graduate of Brown University, McDaniel was an early leader of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. He invited Marshall to join the school’s debate team, which Marshall captained by the end of his freshman year. Under McDaniel’s guidance, Marshall graduated with honors.
Like his older brother, Marshall attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. When Marshall applied for admission, his brother was entering his senior year. Despite his stellar academic record, however, Marshall’s admission became endangered because the tuition for his brother’s junior year was still unpaid. Given the strained condition of the family’s finances, the registrar suggested that Marshall’s admission be delayed a year. But Marshall’s mother would have none of it. As recounted by the author, she took a second job to help pay the debt.
At Lincoln, Marshall was an average student who was even suspended for a week because of a hazing incident. But he excelled on the debate team, becoming the first freshman to ever win a spot on the varsity squad, which competed mostly against teams from other black colleges. During his sophomore year, he participated in the varsity debate against Penn State, the first ever between a black college and a white American university.
One compelling passage in the book recounts Marshall’s participation in a debate during his junior year against the Liberal Club of Harvard. As described by the author, press coverage was heavy, in no small part because the Ku Klux Klan wanted the debate canceled. The debate topic was "Resolved: That Further Intermixing of the Races in the U.S. is Desirable." Paradoxically, Marshall’s team was assigned the negative argument and had to contend that intermixing the races was undesirable. Marshall spoke first and gave an 18-minute oration on the reasons why interracial marriage was detrimental to families and society.
So, in his first significant moment on a big stage before 2,000 spectators, Marshall, the greatest civil rights lawyer in America’s history, was ironically forced to give a speech advocating segregation. As in all things, he even did this well.
Following his 1930 graduation from Lincoln, Marshall wanted to attend the law school at the University of Maryland, but was not permitted to do so because it did not admit blacks. Undeterred, he decided to attend Howard University Law School, where he soon came under the watchful eye of the dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who also served as counsel for the NAACP.
By the time Marshall graduated from Howard in 1933, Houston had become his greatest mentor. Although Marshall’s relationship with Houston has been covered more deeply in prior books, Gibson’s account provides context and texture. Marshall was talented, but he also had to vie with several other young lawyers for Houston’s attention and favors. At this important moment in his life, Marshall was able to rise above the fray because he was a master at self-promotion, he knew how to use flattery, and he could undercut rivals when it suited his purposes.
The strongest part of the book is the author’s account of Marshall’s first years as a lawyer in Baltimore between late-1933 and 1936. As a young lawyer, Marshall struggled to attract paying clients in a black community that was hard hit by the Great Depression. The author deftly recounts these humble beginnings, including the problems that Marshall had with his creditors and the fact that he had to take a part-time job to make ends meet as a clinic clerk with the Baltimore City Department of Health.
Despite those struggles, however, Marshall devoted thousands of hours in those early years to community activism, organizing boycotts, conducting important investigations of racial incidents in Maryland for the NAACP, desegregating the University of Maryland law school, winning equal pay for black school teachers, and decrying injustices in the criminal justice system. By the time he left for New York in 1936, he already had a large body of work.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick.