An Interview with Larry Gibson

Larry Gibson

Professor Gibson has, for many years, researched and produced exhibits, articles, newspaper series, and other presentations on the history of civil rights and African American lawyers. He was the principal advocate for the law passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2005, which renamed the state's main airport the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshal Airport.

His book, Young Thurgood:The Making of a Supreme Court Justice (Prometheus Books 2012), describes the environment, people, and events that shaped Thurgood Marshall's attitudes, work habits, and priorities in his formative years.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Several biographies of Thurgood Marshall have been published over the years. Why do we need another Thurgood Marshall book?

Larry Gibson: Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, which covers Thurgood Marshall only up to the age of thirty, is not mainly a book about what Thurgood Marshall "did." Instead, it is a book about what Thurgood Marshall "was like" and how he got to be that way. The book provides new insight into how Thurgood Marshall's personality, priorities, and practices were shaped by events and people during his formative years.

A second mission of Young Thurgood is to correct some of the mistaken "conventional wisdom" about Marshall that has accumulated over the years.

HLG: The city of Baltimore is described in your book as if it were a character unto itself. What was unique about the black community there that helped to make Marshall the person he became?

LG: In large measure, Marshall was a product of Maryland's quintessential border state character, and its inconsistent approach to race relations. Maryland has often been called the most northern southern state and the most southern northern state. Before the Civil War, Maryland had both slavery and a very strong abolitionist movement. Half of the blacks in Maryland were slaves and half were free. Baltimore had the largest free black population of any American city.

After the Civil War, Baltimore's attitudes and practices on matters of race remained socially, culturally, and politically extremely ambiguous. Unlike the Deep South where Jim Crow was impenetrable, the patterns of racial interaction in Baltimore were uneven. Some public places were segregated and others were not. Blacks voted and held public office from 1891. Baltimore's black community had had a group of aggressive black lawyers.

Young Thurgood.

Much of the book describes Baltimore's economics, politics, and sociology during the first third of the 20th century, as Marshall was born, grew up, went to school, and began practicing law.

The state's dual personality on racial matters led Thurgood Marshall to refer to Maryland as "Up South". Marshall observed that, although Maryland continued to suffer from many of the vestiges of slavery, the state had organizations and leaders, including some judges, who respected the U.S Constitution and were willing to use their authority to promote racial equality under the law. Marshall had witnessed earlier black lawyers make progress.

Marshall concluded that he could use the law and courts that had been instruments of oppression to effect positive change. He was right. In his first few years as a lawyer in Maryland, Marshall succeeded in obtaining important landmark civil rights victories.

HLG: You have written that there is a misperception that Marshall harbored a grudge against Baltimore. How did this perception get started? And why do you think this impression of him is false?

LG: I do not know the source of this widely held misimpression.

This false impression began to be corrected in my mind upon my first personal encounter with Justice Marshall. In July 1975, another young Baltimore lawyer and I went to Marshall's home in Falls Church, Virginia, late one night to ask him to sign an emergency order in a case we were handling.

We dealt with the legal matter in about twenty minutes. But we did not leave Marshall's home for almost three hours. Marshall entertained my co-counsel and me with one story after another about his growing up in Baltimore. He asked us about some people and places and whether certain buildings were still standing.

I immediately noticed how different Marshall was from the impressions that I had gotten from reading about him. He was friendlier, had a greater sense of humor, and had a more positive attitude about his hometown Baltimore than I expected.

My next involvement with Marshall was three years later. In 1978, the students at the University of Maryland School of Law, where I was teaching, persuaded the school administration to name the new law library in honor of Justice Marshall. The process took about two years to accomplish.

Again, I noticed that the press treatment of Marshall was not consistent with what I knew. The press gave the impression that the naming was over Marshall's objection and that he had snubbed the school. In fact, Marshall had expressly consented to the naming and had authorized his best friend on the court, Justice William Brennan, to represent him at the ceremony.

So, I decided that I needed to conduct my own investigation, to learn more about Thurgood Marshall from people who really knew him.

In 1981, I began to interview Marshall's contemporaries in Baltimore, many of whom I knew. I audiotaped interviews of his relatives, classmates, former neighbors, and even two of his high school teachers. None of them had detected the supposed animus towards Baltimore. Nor had the Justice's son, Thurgood Marshall, Jr., who told me that his father was even a fan of the Baltimore Colts football team.

HLG: On that note, were there any surprises in your research on Marshall's life—something that contradicted an impression you or your colleagues had held?

LG: One of my motivations for writing Young Thurgood was to correct misimpressions that had become part of Thurgood Marshall folklore. There are sufficient interesting and verifiable facts about Marshall without the myths.

Marshall was a much more serious young person and student than others have suggested. One reading the earlier biographies of Marshall would get the false impression that the young Marshall was not a serious student, was not exceptionally intelligent or industrious, and that his success can be attributed to his being a "late bloomer" who came awake in law school. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With the permission of the Marshall family, I obtained and reproduce in the book Marshall's academic transcripts. The reader can see every course and every grade from the 9th grade, through high school, college and law school. Throughout his schooling, Marshall was a top student, while working at afterschool jobs from the age of seven.

Marshall did not have repeated disciplinary problems in school, as some writers have claimed. He was not sent to the school basement and required to memorize sections of the U.S. Constitution as punishment, as has been claimed.

It is not true that Marshall went to college originally planning to be a dentist and that he changed his plans because he flunked chemistry. On his college application, also reproduced in the book, Marshall said clearly that he planned to be lawyer. Furthermore, the college transcript shows that he got a B and a C in chemistry.

In college, Marshall was not repeatedly suspended for pranks. Much of the college lore is built around the telling, retelling, and exaggeration of an incident in which Marshall and one third of the sophomores at Lincoln University were suspended two weeks for hazing freshmen students. Marshall's involvement was minor, as evidenced by his receiving the lightest penalty of the group.

Marshall's family may be properly categorized as middle class, but they were much poorer than has been previously understood. The family constantly struggled financially. His father was a waiter and the work was seasonal and sporadic. His mother was only a substitute school teacher through most of Marshall's early years. Therefore, often neither parent was working.

The family did not move into their own home until Marshall was in high school. Until then, they lived with his mother's sister and then with his mother's brother. Marshall's college education was almost delayed because of the unpaid tuition and fees of his older brother. The book shows images of his mother's letters to Lincoln University pleading for time to pay her sons' overdue school fees.

An aspect of Thurgood Marshall's early years that needed development was his eight years of competitive debating. This was his true passion. In high school, Marshall was on the debate team for four years. Then, he became the first freshman to make his college debate team. He participated in the first debate in the nation between a black college and a white college. He even debated at Harvard University.

Marshall's academic transcripts show that Marshall's early focus was mastering the language and the tools of debate and verbal persuasion. He took courses in public speaking, logic, rhetoric, Latin, Greek, German, and literature.

Contrary to what is said in many books and websites, Marshall did not apply for admission to the University of Maryland Law School. He would have been rejected, had he applied, because the university did not admit blacks to any of its departments. Marshall applied to only Howard University Law School.

It is true that at Howard, Thurgood Marshall and his classmate came under the tutelage of Dean Charles Hamilton Houston. But, there is no evidence of any special relationship between Houston and Marshall, until Marshall's last semester in law school.

After law school, Houston and Marshall worked together on some important cases. Marshall had other equally important mentors. Marshall seemed to attract mentors, including a favorite uncle, a high school history teacher, a college debate coach, some older lawyers, and a newspaper editor. He was a good listener and people liked to advise him and help him to succeed.

Upon becoming a lawyer in Baltimore, Marshall did not immediately begin to represent the local branch of the NAACP, as has been frequently written. When he got out of law school, the NAACP Baltimore Branch was inactive. Marshall's early civil rights work was in connection with the national office of the NAACP in New York, not the Baltimore branch. Marshall joined others to revive the local branch.

Marshall did not handle civil rights cases because he could not obtain fee-producing clients. Marshall was a very busy young lawyer and, had he chosen to do so, he could have made a comfortable living doing non-civil rights work. Marshall repeatedly put aside his regular law practice to work pro bono on time consuming civil rights matters. The reader watches as Marshall comes to realize that advancing civil rights was his true priority.

The book shows that Marshall was not just a legal tactician. He was also a politician, who used diplomacy and his natural charm with judges, opposing lawyers, law enforcement persons, and other government officials to obtain results.

Marshall's personality did not just come out of the blue. Much about him was inherited. Many of Marshall's personal traits, including his almost superhuman capacity for work, sense of humor, storytelling, disputatious disposition, and his loud voice, are directly traceable to his specific family members identified in Young Thurgood.

HLG: Within a few days of becoming a lawyer, Marshall found himself involved in the aftermath of a lynching. Your book suggests that this was a turning point for Marshall. Is it safe to say that this incident in particular put him on the path to becoming a national civil rights advocate, rather than a lawyer running a local practice?

LG: In October 1933, one week after Thurgood Marshall was admitted to law practice, George Armwood was murdered by a mob in a horrific lynching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The next day, Thurgood Marshall wrote about the lynching in a letter to his former law school dean, Charles Houston. A few days later, Marshall joined Houston and eight other lawyers in the Maryland governor's office protesting the lynching and demanding an investigation and legislative changes. Marshall became and remained an active and vocal anti-lynching advocate.

I often wonder what direction Marshall's career would have taken had three specific incidents not occurred. The first of these being the Armwood lynching. The meeting in the governor's office to protest the lynching brought Marshall back in touch with Houston. They might have otherwise gone their separate ways.

The other fortuitous events were two conventions that happened to be held in Baltimore early in Marshall's career: the 1934 national convention of the National Bar Association and the 1936 national convention of the NAACP. These two meetings in Marshall's hometown brought him into direct contact with the nation's leading black lawyers and civil rights advocates. Marshall decided that he wanted to join their ranks, and the evidence suggests that many of these lawyers and leaders recognized something special in the young Baltimorean.

HLG: Though Marshall steadily built a reputation as a formidable opponent of segregation, he endured some losses in the courtroom, which your book describes. How did these failures shape his life, outlook, and strategy?

LG: The book describes Marshall's first major civil rights loss, his unsuccessful effort to desegregate a high school in Baltimore County.

In 1936, black citizens were about 15% of the population of Baltimore County, which surrounds but does not include the city of Baltimore. The county had ten public high schools. However, blacks could not attend any of them and had to come into Baltimore City to attend one overcrowded high school. For some youngsters, this meant traveling twenty miles daily while passing several public high schools on the way.

My book recounts Marshall 's lawsuit on behalf of Margaret Williams, who wanted to go to a county high school near her community. Marshall lost the cases, and it was a stinging loss. But, it is remarkable how quickly Marshall brushed off the loss and immediately turned his attention to his next civil rights challenge, the school teacher salary cases.

Black school teachers in Maryland counties and throughout the South were paid about half the salary paid to white teachers of comparable education and experience. That was until Maryland state judges and a federal judge in Maryland began to end that practice in lawsuits brought by Marshall, beginning a few months after the Baltimore County high school case.

After Marshall relocated to New York to work for the national NAACP, he replicated the Maryland teacher salary cases in nine other states.

HLG: Why did you include in the book so much information about the black lawyers in Maryland who came before Marshall?

LG: I had not planned to write as much as I did about these earlier lawyers. But, as the book developed, I found it increasingly important to write about Marshall's lawyer predecessors in Maryland. Their careers and efforts were important to understanding Marshall's priorities and approaches.

These lawyers were Marshall's role models. They also defined most of the substantive agenda that Marshall would pursue once he became the lead attorney for the national NAACP - protect the franchise, oppose Jim Crown transportation, obtain equal pay for school teachers, resist housing discrimination, promote the rights of the accused, and fight for equal educational opportunity.