inSide Books: Young Thurgood Marshall
In 1930, Thurgood Marshall was denied admittance to the University of Maryland Law School because he was African American. In 2012, Professor Larry S. Gibson, professor of law at the University of Maryland and practicing lawyer, has finished a book about Marshall and how he bounced back from that disappointment and went on to make groundbreaking strides in civil rights.
Pop culture is filled with books and movies that examine the youthful days of various heroes but Young Thurgood Marshall: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice will take readers through the early career of a real-life hero whose work as an NAACP lawyer and a Supreme Court Justice changed the legal profession for his colleagues and whose efforts helped secure important rights for all American citizens.
Gibson has been able to write the only biography of Marshall that has received the approval of the Marshall family (the book is endorsed by Marshall’s widow Cecelia Marshall and has an introduction written by Thurgood Marshall, Jr.) because he has been connected to the family for years. He says this connection was cemented when he lead an effort to get a statue of Marshall repositioned. The Marshall family also supported Gibson’s efforts to get BWI Airport renamed for Thurgood Marshall.
Gibson feels that “What [Marshall] was like needs to be told and supported with careful documentation.” And in true lawyerly fashion, he uses the book to do just that. Rather than simply writing a tribute to Marshall based on personal knowledge, Gibson uses documentation and interviews to build a case for readers to view Marshall not only as an icon but as a human being.
The book has 400 pages with 188 images spread throughout the text. These images include photos, school transcripts, letters, and press clippings. In the center of the book, readers will find original maps that show Marshall’s Maryland, Marshall’s Baltimore, Marshall’s neighborhood, plus a map to show locations that relate to one of his cases. Gibson says it’s important to show the geographical arrangement of things, particularly for people who aren’t familiar with Maryland.
“I think it took a Baltimorean to write this book,” Gibson notes.
Who Was Thurgood Marshall?
Gibson says that Marshall’s career after he takes over as the lead lawyer for the NAACP in New York City is well-documented and that this book is “less about what he did and more about what he was like and how he came to be that way.” The celebrated civil rights lawyer and judge’s early career shaped his work habits, attitudes, and civil rights agenda.
Starting in 1989, Gibson interviewed Marshall’s contemporaries—relatives, neighbors and even two of Marshall’s teachers. He wasn’t ready to start the book at that time, but had a sense that history would be lost as more people who knew Marshall passed away.
In total, Gibson spent ten years working on the book itself, which begins with a description of meeting Marshall. Gibson, a young lawyer at the time, arrived with a colleague at Marshall’s house late at night to discuss a legal issue, and Marshall met them at the door, saying ‘This had better be a criminal matter.’
Contrary to what Gibson had presumed (that Marshall would be aloof or gruff), once he had woken up, Marshall was very engaging, regaling Gibson and his colleague with stories for 2 ½ hours. Gibson had also heard that Marshall did not like Baltimore but the stories he told that night illustrated his fondness for their shared hometown…who knew Thurgood Marshall was a Baltimore Colts fan?
Putting an Iconic Figure on the Page
Gibson says the book was divided into four separate dimensions to allow people to approach the book in the way that suits them. For those who want to read the book straight through, there is that option. Gibson also imagines that some people will be interested in looking at the images that he says tell a version of the story all on their own. He considers the conclusion, which recapitulates the book, to be an informative essay. And then there are detailed footnotes for scholars and readers who want to get into the details.
“This is my first full-length book but it turned out to be a rather pleasant experience.” For Gibson the opportunity to write without the limits that sometimes go along with writing as a lawyer was enjoyable. He pronounced the prospect of including footnotes “delightful.”
Gibson considers Marshall to be the most important lawyer of the 20th century. And while he is celebrated for his work to end school segregation, Marshall himself felt that the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was just as important as Smith v. Allwright, an important voting rights case from 1944.
“People think mostly about Brown v. Board of Education but his reach extended into many arenas such as housing and transportation,” says Gibson.