Book Review: “Young Thurgood” by Larry S. Gibson – posted 4/12/2015
My friend Paul recommended this book and with good reason. Young Thurgood by law professor Larry S. Gibson is a very enjoyable and educational read based on extremely comprehensive research. Professor Gibson did a fantastic job of sleuthing to dig up stories and information. The book presents a vivid picture of the young Thurgood Marshall long before his tenure as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. It succeeds in showing the world in which Marshall grew up, a world in which vigilante justice sometimes competed against the rule of law. It shows how the young Marshall got his legal career off the ground.
Although it is not that long ago, the world of Marshall’s youth is insufficiently understood today. It was a world in which lynchings of black men had not been so unusual. Gibson points out that from 1890 to 1940, 5000 black Americans were lynched in the United States. Racism defined America and rigidly circumscribed the lives of all minorities.
Marshall grew up in Maryland. He personally experienced the world of vicious segregation. Gibson says that in the period from 1882 to 1930 Maryland ranked twenty-seventh out of the 48 states in the number of lynchings that occurred within its borders. 33 lynchings had occurred in Maryland.
I mention lynchings because the 1933 lynching of a black man named George Armwood figured in Marshall’s early career. He was fresh out of law school, 23 years old, and he and ten other black lawyers sought a meeting with Maryland’s governor to see what the governor planned to do about what happened to Armwood. Marshall became a lawyer one week before the Armwood lynching.
Until 1885, Maryland had restricted the practice of law to white males only. It was still a big deal that Marshall could become a lawyer. Gibson says only 60 African Americans had been lawyers in Maryland before Marshall was admitted to the Bar. It took a legal challenge to permit Black lawyers to practice as Bar members. Many jurisdictions allowed no Black lawyers.
Gibson includes the results of a survey conducted in 1928 about the status of Black lawyers in the South. The responses are eye-opening and racist as hell. Here is one from Taylor County, Fla.: “No Negro lawyer in this county now nor as ever been. A Negro lawyer would be as much out of place here as a snowball would be in Hades.”
Marshall pointedly challenged Governor Ritchie at their meeting about the Armwood lynching and asked: “Is there an investigation taking place in the state police department?” Governor Ritchie did not directly answer and the state response was the usual do-nothing. Gibson shows how Marshall aggressively pursued the anti-lynching effort. He joined the coalition effort to pass anti-lynching legislation, the Costigan-Wagner Bill, in Congress. He repeatedly wrote Maryland’s senator, Senator Tydings to push him to support the legislation.
Marshall researched prior lynchings and showed that most lynching victims were not, in fact, rape suspects. Debunking that stereotype, he showed that Blacks accused of minor offenses had typically been the ones brutally victimized. While no one was ever held accountable for Armwood’s lynching, Gibson states that Armwood was the last person ever to be lynched in Maryland. Marshall’s efforts and the anti-lynching coalition did have some positive effect although the Costigan-Wagner Bill went down to defeat in Congress because of a filibuster by Southern senators.
I don’t think Marshall would have been surprised by all the police shootings of young Black men in the 21st century. There is a direct line from his experience to what we see today.
There are many good stories in Young Thurgood. It was interesting to see the tension between his civil rights cases and his need to support himself. He went through periods of being absolutely financially desperate. To make ends meet, Marshall worked a night job at the Baltimore City Department of Health as a clinic clerk. He had to track sexually transmitted diseases. This was at the same time as he handled major civil rights cases, tort suits, divorces, and other legal matters. Marshall said, “Nobody cares which twenty-three hours in a day I work.”
Marshall was an extraordinarily hard worker. While at law school, he was always working when he wasn’t in class. He had been too poor to live in Washington DC where his law school, Howard University, was located. He lived in Baltimore and commuted to DC six days a week on the train. After getting up at 5am, he walked a mile to the B & O station on Mount Royal Avenue, He then had to walk to law school.
Gibson recounts the different jobs Marshall held including railroad waiter, assistant law school librarian, and waiter at a fancy country club resort. Marshall was very popular and socially adept in any setting. He had a very sunny and friendly disposition.
It turned out that Marshall’s winning personality and positive disposition served him well in many different contexts. Gibson describes Marshall this way:
“A gregarious person and a natural politician, Marshall enjoyed conversing with persons of all economic levels. As a lawyer he was diplomatic and collegial, disarming adversaries and defusing tense situations with personal charm and humor. Eight summers as a waiter had cultivated tact and skill in quickly assessing people and situations, and these interpersonal skills helped him greatly during his early career.”
Marshall had a remarkable talent of being reasonable with those who disagreed with him. Gibson says that ability flowed from his experience as a competitive debater in high school and college. He was a good listener. Gibson portrays Marshall as anything but a know-it-all. He said others described Marshall as “a sponge”, soaking up the ideas of those around him. He was pragmatic.
Gibson shows how Marshall was always ready to directly approach the people who had the most authority to address situations in which he was engaged. He famously had a relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. Marshall had a great sense of humor and that also helped him. There was one story Gibson told that I cannot pass on recounting.
“When Marshall met Great Britain’s Prince Edward, His Highness asked Marshall “Do you care to hear my opinion of lawyers?” to which Marshall reportedly responded with a smile, “Only if you care to hear my opinion of princes”.
The cases Marshall handled as a young lawyer were most impressive and varied. Gibson does a good job of getting into the cases and the challenges Marshall faced. In 1935, Marshall, on behalf of a Black student and Amherst College graduate, Donald Murray, filed suit against the University of Maryland School of Law, which at the time would not allow any Black students at the school. The case ultimately went to trial and Marshall prevailed on an equal protection basis. Marshall did all the work on appeal and he again won at the Maryland Court of Appeals.
The Murray case opened the door nationally to desegregation of schools and other government facilities. If his career with impact litigation ended there that would have still been huge but it was only the very beginning. Marshall had a long career litigating before he became a judge.
Marshall also was counsel on a case that addressed racial discrimination in school teacher pay for teachers in Maryland. Using his customary careful grasp of the facts, Marshall showed how on average Black teachers were paid 53.9% of what white teachers earned for doing the same work. Marshall filed four lawsuits around the issue, including one in federal court, and he again prevailed using equal protection.
The ruling in this case provided the foundation for teacher pay litigation throughout the South.
I am not doing justice to the breadth of cases described by Gibson. He shows Marshall’s losses as well as his wins. Gibson also does a good job of showing how Marshall emerged from a tradition of courageous and effective Black attorneys in Baltimore. Marshall had great mentors who modelled how to be an effective civil rights lawyer. Gibson singles out Charles Houston who played a critically helpful role in Marshall’s life. But there was also Everett Waring, W. Ashbie Hawkins and Warner T. McGuinn. Each deserves more than passing mention. Waring was the first African American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also the first African American member of the Maryland Bar. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1885.
In reading about Marshall, it is hard not to be impressed and inspired by what one man could do. His example is genuinely remarkable and warrants close study. Both as a lawyer and a judge, he is an outstanding role model. By any measure his accomplishments were staggering. I plan to write more about Marshall.
My friend Paul did not steer me wrong. Check out the book.