Dream Makers, Dream Breakers

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Thurgood Marshall, who was born to a primary school teacher and a club steward in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1908, and who died in 1993, arguably had the most formidable credentials in civil rights activism of any American who has ever lived. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., with whose campaign of nonviolent resistance Marshall did not always agree, is certainly the only individual who could challenge Marshall’s reputation in that arena. Marshall’s attitude toward other black leaders of his time varied from reverence for his mentor Charles H. Houston to contempt for such militants as Stokely Carmichael. About King he was more ambiguous, at once admiring and resentful, even jealous. About the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott King helped organize, Marshall snorted, “All that walking for nothing. They might as well have waited for the Court decision.”

Marshall unquestionably believed that the best, most direct path to equality for American blacks started at the courthouse door. His unshakable belief in the power of the judicial system to change the lives of the nation’s underprivileged was rooted in his own experience. When he was a young lawyer, nothing preoccupied Marshall more than the rejection he had suffered from the University of Maryland Law School, which had refused to admit him in 1930 simply because of his race. His strategy for avenging himself, a successful lawsuit in 1935 mandating that the law school admit qualified black applicants, set the tone not only for his most celebrated victory, Brown V. Board of Education (1954), but for his entire career.

The University of Maryland litigation occurred early in Marshall’s tenure as an attorney at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Marshall began his career with the NAACP after he was graduated first in his class at Howard University Law School in 1933. His victory in the case against the University of Maryland was followed by a number of similar lawsuits challenging the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the educational arena, among them such landmark cases as Gaines v. Canada (1938).

Gaines v. Canada was only one of thirty-two cases—twenty-nine of them victories—that Marshall argued before the United States Supreme Court during his NAACP years. In 1940 he became head of the newly formed NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a position he held for more than twenty years. During this time, Marshall’s legal activity was prodigious, as he took on such diverse issues as the admissibility of murder confessions, equal pay for black schoolteachers, the rights of blacks to vote in primary elections, and courts-martial of black soldiers during the Korean War. Such activity required him to work long hours and to travel the country, and the world, on a shoestring budget—often at great personal risk. Carl Rowan documents not only Marshall’s frequent illnesses but also his brush with death when he was almost lynched in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1946 after defending two accused murderers there.

The high point of Marshall’s career as a litigator, however, doubtless was Brown v. Board of Education, when Marshall and the NAACP took on the issue of school integration, challenging not only the “separate but equal” doctrine the Supreme Court had sanctioned in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 but also what was euphemistically called “the Southern way of life.” Although he would later express great frustration at the slow pace of change set by the high court in Brown II in 1955, Marshall’s reaction on hearing the Court’s initial decision was entirely accurate: “We hit the jackpot.” The ramifications of the decision would affect every American.

The history of the case itself is long and tortured, beginning in 1950, when Oliver Brown’s seven-year-old daughter was not permitted to enroll in the local elementary school, and not concluding until five years later, when the Court delivered its ruling on the mechanics of school desegregation. Brown I was argued twice, apparently because the Court was deadlocked. The hiatus between oral arguments, however, saw the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson and his replacement by Earl Warren, who was able to secure a unanimous decision. No...

(The entire section is 1760 words.)