Review of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

Author: Juan Williams

Publisher: Broadway Books, 1999

Thurgood Marshall, whatever your opinion of his specific policies, is one of the hundred greatest Americans.  But any biography breaks down into two categories: factual narrative and author’s analysis.  Marshall is very difficult to biographize because his career presents a dichotomy: his successful moderate positions at the NAACP and as Solicitor General as against his increasingly radical and much less moderate positions as the first Afro-American Supreme Court justice.  This makes authorial analysis much more difficult because it presents inconsistency in character.

In this particular biography Juan Williams does an excellent job of presenting fact, but he is much better in his coverage of Marshall’s work at the NAACP than in his analysis of Marshall’s work on the Supreme Court.  Marshall’s heroism as the leading figure in the quest for integration through legal means is drawn out through anecdotes, thorough narrative, and through examination of the documentary record.  The research for this part of the book was extensive and thorough.  This makes sense, because this was probably the more important part of his career in terms of the impact he left at this stage of his life.  However the section on Marshall’s career after the NAACP–including his time on the Second Circuit Appeals, his work as Solicitor General, and his Supreme Court career–is shorted.  Only a quarter of the book is devoted to this period; the research is less extensive, the interviews with former associates, friends, and colleagues less prevalent, the anecdotes unavailable.

In the end Williams seems to excuse Marshall’s newfound radicalism on the High Court by blaming his shortcomings on illness and bad temper.  I do not think this is adequate; it may serve as a partial explanation, but does not excuse the fact that Marshall’s ego got to his head and that he became a caricature of his former self.  It is true that biographers become attached to the subjects of their research, but a professional biographer should be able to make this point and make it clearly and explicitly.  The reality is that there is a stark contrast in Marshall’s political and social outlook that develops later in his life–as he has become more, not less, successful–and it demands a stronger explanation than Williams gives.

This is still a very good–and important–book but it is only 4 stars in my eyes rather than 5.

As a side note, Marshall with one testicle would make a much better President than Obama with no balls.


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