By Avis Thomas-Lester
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
An unusual testament to the quality of the new biography of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall by Baltimore attorney and University of Maryland law school professor Larry S. Gibson is cited on the back cover.
“The most accurate book ever published about my husband,” Marshall’s widow, Cecelia S. Marshall, wrote about Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, which is scheduled to be released Dec. 4.
The foreword to the book contains more praise from Marshall’s family.
“Professor Larry S. Gibson has crafted a unique and engrossing portrait,” said Marshall’s oldest son, Thurgood Marshall Jr.
“Through the rich collection of childhood anecdotes, the insights into the colorful assemblage of relatives, mentors, and legal clients who shaped my father’s development; and the recounting of the challenges and opportunities my father encountered…this book weaves together the events that formed the foundation for my father’s career.”
Having endorsements from the widow and namesake of a subject you are profiling is the desire of many a biographer. In Gibson’s case, the kudos came after Marshall’s relatives witnessed, firsthand, the care he took in researching the civil rights icon’s life. He had spent thousands of hours poring over material on Marshall before he even approached the family. Gibson, a practicing lawyer at the law firm of Shapiro, Sher, Guinot, and Sandler, first met Marshall in 1975 as a young lawyer who went to the Supreme Court justice’s Falls Church, Va., home in the middle of the night seeking a signature on an emergency order. That meeting stoked an interest in Marshall that was the foundation for the research that would be published 37 years later as Young Thurgood.
After sporadically researching Marshall for so many years, Gibson grew frustrated with the misinformation he saw in other books. Some described him as moody and curmudgeonly, when Marshall was known for his sense of humor. Some described him as lacking in intellect when his work and the opinions of many of the great legal minds of the 20th century call him a talented legal strategist and masterful litigator. Some got details of his childhood wrong, others falsely claimed he had grown to loathe his hometown. Most of the books Gibson had seen repeated the same misinformation about Marshall’s early years, when it was included at all.
After hearing him grumble for years, the dean at the University of Maryland law school, Karen Rothenberg, suggested that he “write a book that sets the record straight.” Gibson decided, in 2002 at age 60, to respond to that challenge.
“My goal in writing the book was to tell the truth, to point out what is correct and to say what was wrong and to correct it,” he said in an interview.
He did not, however, call out other biographers. Instead, he presented what he knew to be the facts, gleaned from untold hours of interviews with people who knew Marshall or from credible information from Marshall’s writings, official records, court documents, magazines and newspapers. Point of full disclosure: Gibson credits the AFRO-American Newspapers with providing some of the best and most thorough information on Marshall, from his days on the debating team at Colored High School, later Frederick Douglass, to his time at Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he roomed with James H. Murphy, a descendant of AFRO founder John H. Murphy Sr. His ascension in the legal world was chronicled by AFRO publisher Carl J. Murphy, who, as Gibson noted in his book, took an early interest in Marshall’s career. The tradition of the AFRO reporting on Marshall continued throughout his life.
The book demonstrates the depth of Gibson’s research. He didn’t just read what others had written and talk to people in the present. He reached back to Marshall’s early years in Old West Baltimore working at his grandfather’s store, to his college days as a member of the debate team and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, where he was once suspended for hazing. Gibson details the struggle Thurgood had as a young lawyer looking for office space in a city that openly discriminated against Blacks, even those who could personally file suit against them, before settling into offices with the formidable Baltimore attorney Warner T. McGuinn in the old Phoenix Building at 4 East Redwood Street in downtown Baltimore.
“Part of my objective was to show, not mainly what Thurgood did, but what he was like,” said Gibson, 70. “Clearly he was the product of his environment both physically and historically and the people around him all described certain traits, like his work habits. I needed to place him in that environment, to describe the events, people and circumstances.”
Gibson said acquaintances described Marshall as an industrious and confident boy who loved his family and worked “with almost no break” from elementary school to the end of his life.
“He had a part time job from age 7,” Gibson said.
His father, William Marshall, was well-read, bright with strong opinions, but had a difficult time maintaining well-paying work. His mother, Norma, was a doting mother who was steadfast in her determination for Thurgood, and his older brother William Aubrey, called Aubrey, to be well educated. The book contains letters written by Marshall’s mother each year pleading for her sons to be admitted to college despite having unpaid bills. She was rewarded when Aubrey chose medicine as a career and Thurgood reached the highest position in the legal profession years after her death.
Because his research took place over such an extended period of time, Gibson was able to speak with sources who are no longer living, like childhood friends and colleagues who provided first-hand information on the events of his life as Marshall rose from well-regarded Baltimore lawyer to a nationally-known civil rights advocate—all before he turned 30 years old.
Gibson said his aim was to present a book that would appeal to students and historians alike. An avid photographer, he included some 188 images that contribute significantly to the story.
“If you look at the photos and read the cutlines, you can get much of the book,” he said.
Gibson, who grew up and still lives in Baltimore, described the book as “easily readable,” adding that for “scholars and historians, there is an extensive collection of footnotes” that detail Marshall’s research, legal findings on many of his cases and personal correspondence.
Young Thurgood is a detail-rich story that unfolds like a novel, with intriguing characters and settings that come to life through the extensive collection of photos. From the image of Thurgood as an infant, to an advertisement for his grandfather’s store for which he posed as a youngster to the images of the lanky, disheveled youth who honed his skills as a litigator by excelling in debate in college, the photos provide an intriguing look inside young Marshall’s life.
The story of the man who would make history as the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court begins before he was born with a history lesson worthy of inclusion in a K-12 curriculum. Told against the rich backdrop of Baltimore, Md. and African-American history, Young Thurgood traces not only the life of the famous civil rights lawyer, but the plight and progress of Blacks in Maryland from Reconstruction to a few years before the United States entered World War II.
That history, Gibson said, influenced Marshall’s perception of the world and was the impetus for him to seek a career in the law. He grew up seeing discrimination against Blacks in everything from employment to the placement of housing restrictions that still influence the level of poverty among Blacks in Baltimore today. His parents were interested in politics and he grew up seeing how local churches, with the help of powerful lawyers, like W. Ashbie Hawkins, the first Black attorney for the Baltimore NAACP, organized protests to turn those discriminatory policies around or at least stand up against them.
The book weaves through Marshall’s early years as a civil litigator and civil rights attorney. It includes his victories and losses. It delves into his relationships with legal legends like Charles Hamilton Houston, the Howard law school administrator who served as special counsel to the NAACP, a titan who took an early interest in Marshall and brought him up to succeed him. The two worked together on the case of Murray v. Pearson, “the first major school desegregation victory in the nation,” according to Gibson’s book. Donald G. Murray was a 21-year-old graduate of Amherst who was denied admittance to the University of Maryland law school.
“It was a case that historians now regard as the first step on the road to Brown v. Board of Education,” Gibson said.
Gibson said he does not plan a sequel.
“This was the book I wanted to do and it is done,” he said. “I will let others tell the rest of the story.”
Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, 413 pages, was published by Prometheus Books. It is available on Amazon.com and Barnes.com for $16. It will sell at signings and bookstores for $28.
Gibson will speak and sign his book in Baltimore at 7 p.m. on Thurs., Dec. 13 at the Enoch Pratt Library and at 5:30 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 14 at Union Baptist Church. He will sign and speak in Washington D.C. at 6 p.m. on Dec. 19 at the Thurgood Marshall Center on 12th Street NW. Thurgood Marshall Jr., Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Gibson’s law partner, Ronald Shapiro are expected to attend the Pratt library event. An ecumenical group of pastors are scheduled to attend at Union Street. Cecelia Marshall and Kurt Schmoke, former Baltimore mayor, are scheduled to attend the D.C. event.
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