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...Stinging Like a Bee | The Nation

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...Stinging Like a Bee

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Far more disquieting is the curious fandango (Williams calls it a "minuet") that ensued in the mid-fifties between Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI chief started out, a decade earlier, believing Marshall to be one of Satan's emissaries, given the young lawyer's work with left-wing labor groups. The director soon came to exchange information with the NAACP, through Marshall, on "Communist activities inside civil rights groups." As far as Williams's book is concerned, Marshall wasn't selling out his convictions, since he had never made a secret of his anti-Communism. He was also being practical: The last thing African-Americans needed in the fifties was to have their progress impeded while Jim Crow was in his death throes. Marshall, who fancied himself a great persuader, maintained that he was the one using Hoover for his ends rather than the other way around.

About the Author

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour is a film critic at Newsday and a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Jazz (Oxford University Press).

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One wishes there were a dissenting voice or two in the book to argue this contention. One also wishes there were more details about the nature of Marshall's "information" and who--or what--was hurt by his disclosures. Yet even if the more distressing aspects of the Marshall-Hoover connection were amplified here, you would still wonder, given the scope of what Marshall had already accomplished by the late fifties, whether any radical voice could persuasively challenge what Marshall told an interviewer years after chasing Communists out of the NAACP: "I did more than anybody else did and if you don't believe me ask." By any means necessary...

Marshall became more adroit at manipulating his growing prestige within the establishment's upper reaches while preserving his stature as a freedom-fighting litigator. He maintained this tricky balancing act to the end of his life, even as he ascended to what was widely believed to be his waiting seat on the Supreme Court. Williams makes it clear, however, that Lyndon Johnson's appointment of Marshall in 1967 and the subsequent confirmation were anything but certain. (In today's less civilized times, the appointment might have been scuttled altogether.) The subsequent decade's rightward drift compelled Marshall to see his position on the High Court as yet another arena for demanding human rights. Indeed, as the Court's majority became more conservative through the remainder of Marshall's life, one gets the sense that the Justice may as well have been on the other side of the bench, making arguments to an increasingly unsympathetic panel of Brethren against capital punishment and for preserving the civil rights victories he'd fought so hard to secure. He becomes sicker, angrier; life is much less fun. His skin becomes so thin that he complains to the FBI about a 1982 National Lampoon parody, written under his byline, offering guidelines for better porn movies. Altogether, not a pretty sight.

By the time he died in 1993, Marshall, whose seat had by then been taken by Clarence Thomas, was already being missed, even (especially?) by radicals who believed him to have become too entrenched in the establishment. And it's true that even with his contradictions showing as conspicuously as they do in this book, Marshall looks better than nearly anyone in public life right now. Williams's coda lays out both the man's legacy and the work ahead in a decent, position-paper manner. In particular, Williams notes the "unparalleled rush of immigrants entering the United States" and the concomitant "nativist backlash" from Americans along with the immigrants' own impulse to maintain as much of their culture and heritage as their upward mobility within American society will allow.

"The cutting issue today," Williams writes, "is whether different levels of wealth and opportunity will attach themselves to different classes, limiting economic mobility." Whether native-born or not, Americans with limited access to better education and jobs are going to find themselves leaning more and more on the legal strategies of social engineering pioneered by Thurgood Marshall.

Even in taking this class-based analysis, Williams diminishes neither racism's persistence nor integration's necessity. Ironically, it takes even greater courage these days for a black writer to declare in print, as Williams does, that "integration of racial groups and economic classes guarantees that everyone has an investment in the common good and a mutual concern about the nation's future."

So true. Yet such phrases don't quite resound with the force of a clarion call. At the dawn of the next century, what's needed in addition to preserving Marshall's legacy is a leap of the American imagination into newer, potentially scarier perceptions of who we are and what we are meant to become. Whatever tumult came in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, we know we can't reverse its effect without many other things falling apart on us. The Law, as Marshall believed in it, has done its part for the twentieth century. Whose turn is it for the twenty-first? Ours, one by one.

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