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A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America

A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America

by Howard Ball

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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


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 With the help of numerous, previously unpublished sources, Ball presents a lucid account of Marshall's illustrious career and his historic impact on American civil rights.

Editorial Reviews

Lucas E. Morel
...[R]eminds us how much we owe to Marshall's Hurculean labors as NAACP lead counsel, a suitable tribute to the man once known as "Mr. Civil Rights."
Books & Culture: A Christian Review
Library Journal
These two books about a giant in U.S. legal and political history mirror each other in myriad ways, detailing the history of the NAACP, the rise of Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. Ball's (political science, Univ. of Vermont) study contains more legal lingo, which makes for a less interesting read, while Williams's portrait is more revealing of the private side of the justice.
Kirkus Reviews
The second major Marshall biography in recent months (after Juan Williamsns 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 racismn 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 achievednoften at considerable personal risknas 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 colleaguesn 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 whatMarshall called "power, not reason." However, Ballns 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 dissentsna clarion call for conscience in future Supreme Court deliberations. (16 pages b&w photos)

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Crown Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

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."

Meet the Author

Howard Ball, professor of political science and University Scholar at the University of Vermont, is a leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author of eighteen previous books and dozens of articles in leading political science journals and law reviews. He lives in Richmond, Vermont, with his wife, Carol, their dogs, Max and Casey, and a quarterhorse named Stormin' Norman. Their three daughters, Melissa, Sheryl, and Sue, visit on occasion.

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