Cover image for A defiant life : Thurgood Marshall and the persistence of racism in America
A defiant life : Thurgood Marshall and the persistence of racism in America
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers, c1998.
Physical Description:
xviii, 428 p. : illustrations.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 921 MARSHAL 1 1

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Thurgood Marshall's extraordinary contribution to civil rights and overcoming racism is more topical than ever, as the national debate on race and the overturning of affirmative action policies make headlines nationwide. Howard Ball, author of eighteen books on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, has done copious research for this incisive biography to present an authoritative portrait of Marshall the jurist. Born to a middle-class black family in "Jim Crow" Baltimore at the turn of the century, Marshall's race informed his worldview from an early age. He was rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because of the color of his skin. He then attended Howard University's Law School, where his racial consciousness was awakened by the brilliant lawyer and activist Charlie Houston. Marshall suddenly knew what he wanted to be: a civil rights lawyer, one of Houston's "social engineers." As the chief attorney for the NAACP, he developed the strategy for the legal challenge to racial discrimination. His soaring achievements and his lasting impact on the nation's legal system--as the NAACP's advocate, as a federal appeals court judge, as President Lyndon Johnson's solicitor general, and finally as the first African American Supreme Court Justice--are symbolized by Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that ended legal segregation in public schools. Using race as the defining theme, Ball spotlights Marshall's genius in working within the legal system to further his lifelong commitment to racial equality. With the help of numerous, previously unpublished sources, Ball presents a lucid account of Marshall's illustrious career and his historic impact on American civil rights.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Thurgood Marshall's long and influential life of challenging racism and championing affirmative action makes him prime biography material today. Ball, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and author of 16 previous books on the federal judiciary, expertly interweaves Marshall's life with the history of civil rights in America. From the rise of the NAACP‘which coincided roughly with Marshall's 1908 birth in segregated Baltimore‘to Brown v. The Board of Education, a case that Marshall argued before the Supreme Court in 1953, we see Marshall as a towering figure, an indefatigable adversary of the ruthless and endemic racial discrimination that surrounded him much of his life. As Ball's focus is on legal history, other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., are barely mentioned. In contrast to Juan Williams in his recent biography, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (Times Books), Ball skims over Marshall's personal life, either downplaying or omitting details of his heavy drinking, sexual misconduct, poor health, virulent anticommunism and general cantankerousness. Instead, Ball devotes nearly 200 absorbing pages to Marshall's Supreme Court tenure and casework, presenting detailed‘but very clear‘analyses of pivotal cases in which Marshall was involved, as a NAACP lawyer, as a U.S. Solicitor General and as the first black judge appointed to the Supreme Court. Those cases are Marshall's legacy, and Ball's fine biography places his subject's legal accomplishments squarely in the context of American history. Photos not seen by PW. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

The second major Marshall biography in recent months (after Juan Williams's Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, p. 1105) stresses the late civil rights giant and Supreme Court justice's legal career more than his larger-than-life personality. Ball is no stranger to high-bench biography, having written 17 books on the federal judiciary, including Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's Constitutional Revolution ( with Phillip J. Cooper, 1991). Ball portrays Marshall's life as "the story of the persistence of racism" in America and examines in crushing detail his courtroom accomplishments. It's ironic that Marshall, who as chief litigator for the NAACP successfully argued the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, spent most of his time as a justice dissenting against a conservative majority bent on reversing the gains he'd achieved--often at considerable personal risk--as a lawyer. Marshall "came to the Court too late," the last liberal appointed before a tide of Nixon appointees (led by nemesis William Rehnquist) tipped the balance of power rightward. Marginalized and frustrated, Marshall grew increasingly angered by his colleagues" rulings. These reflected, at their most benign, an ignorance of the plight of ordinary "Joe Doakeses" (whose courageousness Marshall credited for his courtroom success as "Mr. Civil Rights") and, at their most malignant, a narrow-minded racism and hostility toward individual rights. Ball's focus on the small legal print provides eye-opening insights into the machinations of the Court, where squabbling among justices became more common as the Rehnquist court practiced what Marshall called "power, not reason." However, Ball's approach often shortchanges Marshall the man, and the preoccupation with legal history, while compelling to constitutional scholars, will lose many general readers. Better as "further reading" than as an accessible general introduction, Ball's biography nevertheless stands as an extension of Marshall's own dissents--a clarion call for conscience in future Supreme Court deliberations. (16 pages b&w photos) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Ball's excellent analysis of Thurgood Marshall's lifework is grounded in the social and political context of the time. He highlights Marshall's relationship with Charles Houston, William "Bill" Hasties, and other NAACP luminaries who laid the legal foundation for the modern civil rights movement. In his transition from Mr. Civil Rights to Supreme Court justice, Marshall had differences with the new guard (from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), particularly with those who defied the law. Yet such differences did not prevent Marshall from using the NAACP "Inc Fund" to provide legal assistance for participants in defiant student sit-in protests. Marshall's personal complexities are reflected in his periodic consultations with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and the suspicions and concerns those meetings raised. Ball parallels Marshall's personal life with the Supreme Court cases he judged, providing operational context, both on and off the bench, for Marshall's quest for racial and civil justice. This book in an invaluable read for those interested in U.S. social and legal history; see Juan Williams' Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary [BKL Ag 98] for emphasis on Marshall's personal history. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

On October 1, 1991, Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, the last remaining liberal after Justice William Brennan stepped down in 1990. Marshall had sat on that distinguished bench for 24 years. Coming on the heels of Juan Williams's recent biography (Thurgood Marshall, LJ 9/1/98), this study of the late Supreme Court justice is basically a rehash. The books are similar in detail, tracing the rise of Jim Crow, the history of the NAACP, etc., and focusing on public education and affirmative action battles, the Civil Rights movement and its key players, and Marshall's years as a jurist. One difference is that while Williams shows more of the personal side of the man, Ball (Hugo L. Black, LJ 6/1/96) concentrates on the legal aspects of Marshall's life. With the massive amount of attention given to the judicial system, this is primarily for lawyers and judges. Not a necessary purchase.‘Ann Burns, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Chapter 1 Born into Racism and Segregation in America Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908. That year an African American named Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns, the then world heavyweight champion. This was the first time a black man had taken the title away from a white man. As soon as Johnson won, the search was on for the "great white hope" who would take the crown away from him. For African Americans, Johnson's victory may have been the only joy they had that year. On July 2, Thurgood Marshall's birthday, there were stories in the newspapers about race riots, accompanied by crude racial jokes, reminders of the inferiority of the African American in a world dominated by whites. The sociology of the day, as exemplified by the work of Herbert Spencer, U.S. Supreme Court decisions of that era, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's treatise on world power, all argued scientifically and legally for the racial inferiority of Thurgood's people. Although vastly outnumbered by the colored peoples of the world, whites used their power and technology ruthlessly to dominate the lives of nonwhites, particularly in America, where African Americans were worse off than impoverished serfs of some feudal kingdom. Since the end of the Civil War, they had been seen as a societal problem that called for a final resolution. By the turn of the century, that solution was state-ordered Jim Crow segregation of white and black, America's version of white South Africa's policy of apartheid. This was the America into which Thurgood Marshall was born. Slavery, Race, and Racism: The Historic Context In August 1619, the first shipment of Negro slaves, comprising about twenty persons, arrived at Point Comfort, near Jamestown, Virginia. In 1640, a Virginia judge set the tone for America's history of racial discrimination when he sentenced three indentured servants who had run away and had been captured by local authorities. He punished the two white indentured servants by adding one year apiece to their indenture. The third indentured servant, an African American, was punished for his failed escape "by [being] sentenced . . . to a lifetime of service." During the early seventeenth century and continuing up to 1865, slavery was legally recognized in law and politics. African Americans were seen as chattel property, much like oxen and wagons, to be bought and sold at the whim of the slave owner. From the earliest days of British colonialization of North America, African American slaves had no legal or civil rights. By the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787--almost two centuries after slavery had come to America--every Southern state constitution contained clauses that perpetuated slavery by forbidding state legislators from emancipating slaves. The U.S. Constitution referred to the slaves only in property and electoral enumeration terms. Despite the new nation's commitment to equality, pronounced in the Declaration of Independence, slavery was sanctioned. Slaves were not citizens, but merely properties valued, for purposes of determining each state's electoral representation, as three-fifths of a human being. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act further extended the property rights of slave owners to all the states. When the nation's capital was established in 1801, only "free white inhabitants" could elect members of the Washington, D.C., city council. In 1842, in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a slave owner's property rights took precedence over a state's right to protect African Americans. The 1850 amendment to the Fugitive Slave Act reaffirmed that slaves were chattel property. It appointed and authorized U.S. marshals to hold hearings and return slaves to their masters. The ultimate sanction was the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857, confirming that slavery was the law of the land. Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom in federal court in a non-slave state. By a seven-to-two vote (five of the seven justices were born and raised in the South), the Supreme Court said, in part, that Scott was property and had "no rights a white man has to respect." Scott, because he was black, did not have legal "standing" to bring a suit in any federal court, even if he were a free black. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in blunt terms: "It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race. . . . They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Hooded Terror and the Civil War Amendments After the Civil War's end and Lincoln's assassination, the radical Republican Reconstruction Congress succeeded in introducing and getting ratified, between 1865 and 1870, the thirteenth through fifteenth Amendments to the Consti-tution, the so-called Civil War Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, ended slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, was a direct response to Black Codes enacted in localities across the South after 1865 to control and limit the legal and political status--and conduct--of their recently freed slaves. In some cases, these codes "amounted to a virtual re-enslavement of blacks." They deprived African Americans of their basic individual rights. Louisiana's code, for example, starkly stated that "the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States." Excerpted from A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America by Howard Ball All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.