Thurgood Marshall was America’s leading radical. He led a civil rights revolution in the 20th century that forever changed the landscape of American society.But he is the least well known of the three leading black figures of this century. Martin Luther King Jr., with his preachings of love and non-violent resistance, and Malcolm X, the fiery street preacher who advocated a bloody overthrow of the system, are both more closely associate in the popular mind and myth with the civil rights struggle. But it was Thurgood Marshall, working through the courts to eradicate the legacy of slavery and destroying the racist segregation system of Jim Crow, who had an even more profound and lasting effect on race relations than either of King or X.
It was Marshall who ended legal segregation in the United States. He won Supreme Court victories breaking the color line in housing, transportation and voting, all of which overturned the ‘Separate-but-Equal’ apartheid of American life in the first half of the century. It was Marshall who won the most important legal case of the century, Brown v. Board of Education, ending the legal separation of black and white children in public schools. The success of the Brown case sparked the 1960s civil rights movement, led to the increased number of black high school and college graduates and the incredible rise of the black middle-class in both numbers and political power in the second half of the century.
And it was Marshall, as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, who promoted affirmative action — preferences, set-asides and other race conscious policies — as the remedy for the damage remaining from the nation’s history of slavery and racial bias. Justice Marshall gave a clear signal that while legal discrimination had ended, there was more to be done to advance educational opportunity for people who had been locked out and to bridge the wide canyon of economic inequity between blacks and whites.
He worked on behalf of black Americans, but built a structure of individual rights that became the cornerstone of protections for all Americans. He succeeded in creating new protections under law for women, children, prisoners, and the homeless. Their greater claim to full citizenship in the republic over the last century can be directly traced to Marshall. Even the American press had Marshall to thank for an expansion of its liberties during the century.
Marshall’s lifework, then, literally defined the movement of race relations through the century. He rejected King’s peaceful protest as rhetorical fluff that accomplished no permanent change in society. And he rejected Malcolm X’s talk of violent revolution and a separate black nation as racist craziness in a multi-racial society.
The key to Marshall’s work was his conviction that integration — and only integration — would allow equal rights under the law to take hold. Once individual rights were accepted, in Marshall’s mind, then blacks and whites could rise or fall based on their own ability.
Marshall’s deep faith in the power of racial integration came out of a middle class black perspective in turn of the century Baltimore. He was the child of an activist black community that had established its own schools and fought for equal rights from the time of the Civil War. His own family, of an interracial background, had been at the forefront of demands by Baltimore blacks for equal treatment. Out of that unique family and city was born Thurgood Marshall, the architect of American race relations in the twentieth century.
After Marshall died in 1993 there was still no authoritative, thorough account of his life and the impact his work had on the nation. The combination of his reclusiveness and his standing in popular culture as an elderly, establishment figure blinded much of the nation to the importance of Marshall’s work. Young people were especially uninformed about the critical role Marshall had played in making history.
A new biography – Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary – is intended to fill some of that vacuum. In these pages the great storyteller tells his stories. And the history, of both his family and the civil rights movement, are in one place so that future generations can understand the dynamics that created and sustained Marshall’s conception of successful race relations. Given that Marshall laid the foundation for today’s racial landscape, his grand design of how race relations best work makes his life’s story essential for anyone delving into the powder-keg of America’s greatest problem. He was truly an American Revolutionary.