November 3, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Juan
Williams, author of "Thurgood Marshall, American Revolutionary."
| DAVID GERGEN: Juan, most people think of Thurgood Marshall
as staid, reclusive, in a courtroom, far from the streets. Yet, you call
him an American revolutionary. Why?
JUAN WILLIAMS, Author, "Thurgood Marshall:" David, I think there's no question that if you look over the course of this century, this is someone who achieved a revolution. Think of it for a second. He's born in 1908. He's born under the law as Plessy V. Ferguson, which means separate but equal. And we know the reality was separate but unequal. By the middle of the century Marshall, through his legal work and through the strategy that he's pursued and his just share will and determination, he has turned that on its head, created a revolution that had the Supreme Court rule unanimously in Brown versus Board of Education that segregation is illegal, unconstitutional, and that the citizens of this republic are not to be treated according to the color of their skin but that everyone is to be granted equality in the eyes of the law. That was a revolution. And it doesn't stop there. It then goes on because, remember, he goes on to join the court in '67, and he begins an expansive reading of the Constitution that allows for affirmative action, saying that the Constitution that really allowed for discrimination against people on the basis of color must also be a Constitution that allows for some remedy, some remedial effort. And that remedial effort, he decides, is going to be affirmative action, bussing, setasides, preferences in admission, that helps to create the black middle class in this society. That's a revolution.
DAVID GERGEN: What gave him his drive, his passion as a man between that time he was born in Baltimore? Was it the growing up in Baltimore: Was it going to the NAACP? What was it?
JUAN WILLIAMS: You know, what's fascinating for me as the biographer here is to understand the impact that place had on this individual. Sometimes when I meet people and come to know them, I forget place really helps to cast who they are from the very - you know, from the day they're born. And in Marshall's case, the fact that he comes from Baltimore, Maryland, is essential to understanding what gives him the vision and the drive. He has a sense, I think, that the world should be like Baltimore, as Baltimore was for him as a child. And what it was, was it a port city, where there were lots of immigrants, immigrants from Russia, Germany, Ireland, coming and living in Old West Baltimore. In the black area, he grows up next to a Jewish family, best friend is a Jewish kid, and he has a sense also that black people have some political voice, that they can speak out if there's anything being done incorrectly. He has a sense of black people having the capacity to run their own businesses, lead their own religious institutions, have their own newspapers. He sees this as the way the world is. If he'd been farther South, he would have been too much under the thumb of very much intense oppression in terms of the aftermath of slavery and reconstruction and harsh Jim Crowe. And if he'd been up North, of course, then he would have been experiencing the kind of alienation that comes from being one family among many terms of the small number of black people.
DAVID GERGEN: The way you described his life, it always seemed that when he went as a young man to work for the NAACP, that that gave him - just turned him around on the legal questions, and he became - okay, I'm going to change things through the law.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, one of the interesting things I think in everyone's life is kind of fighting our inner demons and coming to understand our own capacities, and in doing this book, one of the things that really fascinated me was seeing Marshall grow, seeing him flower, mature intellectually. He doesn't have much of a racial consciousness coming out of Baltimore, because it was a cocoon, it was a comfortable place, and he did feel that he was able to speak out and to be himself in Baltimore. But he didn't have a sense of what was going on in the wider United States. So as he goes off to college, he runs into none other than Langston Hughes, the poet and writer. And Hughes is one of the people that says, hey, Thurgood Marshall, stop using your voice to talk about fraternity parties and football games. What about what's going on in the country? And Marshall's like, hey, man, get out of my face. But by the time he gets to law school, he started to settle down, and then he comes in the grips of Charles Hamilton Houston, who was a Harvard-educated man, a black lawyer, who was trying to turn around Howard University's law school, and basically what Houston says if a lawyer is not a social architect, then he's a social parasite, and you, Thurgood Marshall, and you other men that I'm training here, I want you to be social revolutionaries. What Houston had done was to find that there are only about a thousand black lawyers in the United States in the late '20s, only a hundred of them working in the South, where most black people lived, and he believed that if we could get black lawyers to really get a grip of that law and use the law to protect rights, it could create a revolution. Marshall is the man who goes on to lead that revolution.
DAVID GERGEN: The legal scholar, Walter Dellinger, calls the Brown V. Board of Education case "the most important legal, political, social, and moral event in 20th century American domestic history." That was a case, of course, that Thurgood Marshall won at the Supreme Court level. How did he do it?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Marshall initially is reluctant to confront the court with the idea that segregation, per se, is unconstitutional. He has been slowly building, case by case, the idea that separate but equal doesn't work, by going out to the states and saying, okay, if you want to have separate but equal, you must have equal facilities for black folks, and finally reaching the point in Texas, where he says at the University of Texas Law School, hey, you can't build a law school that's going to be equal to the University of Texas Law School because a new black sort of jury-rigged law school is not going to have the traditions, it's not going to have the alumnae network, it's not going to have the funding that the University of Texas Law School has in the history of Texas. You can't beat it. And once he gets to that point and wins that victory from the court, then the question becomes: Are you willing to confront segregation as being unconstitutional, just saying to the court, this whole structure of Plessy V. Ferguson of separate but equal doesn't work. He finally makes that great leap in the 1950s when he takes that case, when he gets the five cases that make up Brown Versus Board of Education and takes them to the Supreme Court for that, really, as Dellinger says, a landmark victory that's not only the historians and the lawyers who say this, but you ask the psychologists, you ask the sociologists. That is the moment they say that transformed America in this century.
DAVID GERGEN: How did he feel toward the end of his life, when he - went to the court in the late '60s two thirds of black children went to predominantly integrated schools, a great goal for him. When he died two thirds of black children were going to mostly segregated schools. How did he feel about that?
JUAN WILLIAMS: I think it was part of the reason that towards the end you see someone who feels depressed, saddened, unappreciated, as if he's been forgotten. Marshall really stands a great integrationist. It's a little bit out of step with our times here at the end of the century when you hear so much talk about racial pride and nationalism and why does a black child have to sit next to a white child in order to get a good education. Marshall believed that there was a real reason for that, and the reason was that if you have the black child there next to that white child, then the black child is going to be protected because the dominant political structure being white-run is going to look out for the education and future of that white child, and if the black child is there, it's going to look out for that black child as well. But Marshall, rightly saw, he was no fool, that by the end of his life there was a higher rate of segregation in America's public schools than there had been at the time that he did Brown in '54. And he understood that part of the reason for this was demographics, the shift of white people from the big cities out to the suburbs, and the refusal of the court in the '70s to approve laws that would have allowed for cross-jurisdictional bussing, bringing kids from the suburbs into the cities and cities out to the suburbs. So he felt in so many ways that really the tide had shifted. What he couldn't have anticipated was, for example, the growth in the number of Hispanics in the country so that Hispanics are now "the" most segregated group of children in any schools in the United States, more so than black children. And, of course, when you have concentrated black and Hispanic kids, then you get those high, high rates of segregation. So he couldn't have anticipated it, and I think for him it was a sadness, a sadness attached to it, because he felt clearly the vision of the future should be more like Baltimore as a child, should have been one of integration.
DAVID GERGEN: You placed Thurgood Marshall in your book in a triumvirate of black Americans who were so important in the civil rights era.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. How does his legacy stack up against the other two?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Well, let me answer this question, David, through his eyes. Through his eyes Martin Luther King was a great orator, certainly was a media symbol in terms of the civil rights revolution. But he didn't - in Marshall's mind - change the laws - change the landscape, that you could listen to a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech on the mall in 1963 at the Great March in Washington, be absolutely overcome, but yet go back to an America that was practicing segregation. You could deal with a Malcolm X, a man who was standing there as a defiant, angry voice for all the unfairness that had been visited on black people in the history of this country, and yet, Marshall would say, well, what did Malcolm X ever accomplish? He didn't even lead the marches that Martin Luther King did, and he certainly wasn't changing laws or lobbying Congress or even the mayor's office in New York for changes in the society. He was advocating having black people be separate. That was not something that was going to change and improve the condition of black folks. He said the only other group he knew that wanted people to be separate like that with the KKK. So, in his mind, these folks don't stand up to a Marshall who changed America, literally changed the law, changed the way we relate as citizens, and change the future for children in future generations. So Marshall saw himself as standing above those folks, and that, of course, created problems for him, because a lot of the young people who were the activists, always saw him as somewhat bourgeois, elitist, standoffish, that he really wasn't of a spirit to get out in the street.
DAVID GERGEN: Juan Williams, thank you very much.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Thank you.