Part biography, part legal history, A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall & the Persistence of Racism in America, a highly anecdotal profile of the life of Thurgood Marshall, longtime lead attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice, charts Marshall’s central role in the successful legal assault upon institutionalized racism in the United States from the Depression through the 1960’s, as well as Marshall’s role as a dissenter in the conservative Supreme Court of the Reagan era.
Marshall’s life spanned most of the twentieth century (from 1908 to 1993). The first half of the book focuses on Marshall, as lead counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (the LDF, or the Inc Fund), spearheading campaigns in the courts for racial rights, including voting and the desegregation of transportation and of the Jim Crow Armed Forces, an end to restrictive covenants, and other causes. Chief among these were the hundreds of cases brought in order to achieve educational equity, ultimately culminating in the landmark legal triumph of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court cases (Brown I, 1954, and Brown II, 1955), which overthrew the separate but equal precedents of the nineteenth century’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and set in motion a decade of social turmoil and change.
The second half of the book follows Marshall as he ascends the judicial ladder from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the early 1960’s, to solicitor general, to his nomination by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Supreme Court in 1967. Howard Ball discusses Marshall’s role in major civil liberties cases, including deliberations on the death penalty, affirmative action, and abortion rights, and concludes with Marshall’s retirement in 1991.