Anyone with first- or even secondhand knowledge of the real-life subject must have wondered what strain of myopia possessed those producing the 1991 TV miniseries Separate but Equal when they cast Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall. Poitier is an icon and so was Marshall, but all icons don’t look alike. Whatever virtues Poitier brought to the role, his granite solemnity and stiff-backed nobility were all wrong for Marshall, who came across in Simple Justice, Richard Kluger’s masterly 1975 account of the Brown v. Board of Education fight that inspired the miniseries, as a swaggering composite of Batman, Rabelais, Demosthenes and Anansi the Spider.
This is the epic-heroic vision of Marshall that roars to life in Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, and its evocation is the principal asset of Juan Williams’s book. Readers with more stringent expectations of biographies of Supreme Court Justices may arch their eyebrows over Williams’s breezy, capacious style. And one needn’t be a legal scholar to suspect that the book leaves plenty of room for deeper inquiry into Marshall’s arguments, decisions and dissents. But the speed and swirl of the book’s narrative is more than appropriate for the subject. Williams, a veteran Washington Post reporter and television commentator who wrote the companion volume to PBS’s Eyes on the Prize, wants his readers to feel the ground shaking beneath them as they witness a nation’s galvanic transformation. If the book seems to run away with itself at times, that may be because the history it chronicles seems several steps ahead of America apprehending its impact. Comprehension hasn’t caught up yet, even at this late date.
Marshall’s life provides an illuminating if sometimes troubling focal point for examining this history. To put it another way: Malcolm X, who drew harsh, unrelenting disdain from Marshall (“A damned pimp” was the Justice’s elegy for Malcolm), secured much of his immortality by telling African-Americans to secure their rights “by any means necessary.” Marshall actually carried out that mandate, sometimes in ways that aren’t going to please those who might otherwise consider him a hero.
Or for that matter, consider him a revolutionary–which, in the global sense of the term, Marshall was not, Williams’s subtitle notwithstanding. Consider this testimony, quoted in Kluger’s Simple Justice, from Alfred Kelly, a white historian who helped Marshall’s NAACP legal team prepare its epochal Supreme Court arguments against school segregation:
[Marshall and his team] were convinced that the relationship between the law and society was the key. There was a very conservative element in these men then in the sense that they really believed in the American dream and that it could be made to work for black men, too. Thurgood Marshall was…an American patriot. He truly believed in the United States and the Constitution, but that the whole system was tragically flawed by segregation laws…. Marshall and his colleagues were no rebels. They felt that the social order was fundamentally good…
Kelly, while admiring their zeal, believed that Marshall and his men were “in a sense…profoundly naive” in thinking that their efforts would change the hearts and minds of racists. While Williams is likewise attentive to the unshakable federalism in Marshall’s ideological makeup, skepticism does not shade his own account of Marshall’s courtroom battles leading up to the May 17, 1954, Brown decision against school segregation.