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Lucas E. Morel

The Joe Louis of the Courtroom

Once devoted to a color-blind Constitution, Thurgood Marshall could not bring himself to let that principle benefit whites.

When President Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, the New York Times opined that "apart from the symbolism, Mr. Marshall brings to the Court a wealth of practical experience as a brilliant, forceful advocate." Unfortunately for Marshall, all we remember today is the symbolism—the Court's "first Negro." This is surprising given Marshall's near-quarter century on the high court. How did the symbol obscure the substance of the man Justice William J. Brennan called "the central figure in this nation's struggle to eliminate institutional racism"? Two well-researched biographies, plowing much of the same ground but for different readerships, attempt to recover Marshall's pre-Court reputation as "Jim Crow Buster."

Juan Williams, Washington Post correspondent and author of the critically acclaimed civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, presents Marshall's life in almost bite-sized chapters. Written for a popular audience, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary will instruct while it fascinates even the casual reader. Williams devotes most of his biography to Marshall's 27-year association with the NAACP. Perhaps deservedly so, for what Americans know least about Marshall's legal career is precisely what needs most to be recovered.

Born July 2, 1908, Thoroughgood Marshall went on to live in every decade of the twentieth century. In Williams's account, Marshall's 84-year life span intersects with a veritable "Who's Who" of black America: one finds him carousing with Cab Calloway (of "Minnie the Moocher" fame) at Baltimore's Colored High and Training School; defending an all-white faculty at Lincoln University from the barbs of a worldly-wise "returning student" named Langston Hughes; flirting with the "angels" at Father Divine's peace mission during his Howard Law School days; playing late-night poker with Duke Ellington on the eve of his "first big case" (Smith v. Allwright, a Texas "white primary" case); helping Jackie Robinson sort ...

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