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Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice

Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice

5.0 2
by Larry S. Gibson, Thurgood Marshall (Foreword by)

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Thurgood Marshall was the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century. He transformed the nation's legal landscape by challenging the racial segregation that had relegated millions to second-class citizenship. He won twenty-nine of thirty-three cases before the United States Supreme Court, was a federal appeals court judge, served as the US solicitor


Thurgood Marshall was the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century. He transformed the nation's legal landscape by challenging the racial segregation that had relegated millions to second-class citizenship. He won twenty-nine of thirty-three cases before the United States Supreme Court, was a federal appeals court judge, served as the US solicitor general, and, for twenty-four years, sat on the Supreme Court.

Marshall is best known for achievements after he relocated to New York in 1936 to work for the NAACP. But Marshall's personality, attitudes, priorities, and work habits had crystallized during earlier years in Maryland.

This work is the first close examination of the formative period in Marshall's life. As the authorn shows, Thurgood Marshall was a fascinating man of contrasts. He fought for racial justice without becoming a racist. Simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic, Marshall was a passionate advocate, yet he maintained friendly relationships with his opponents.

Young Thurgood reveals how Marshall's distinctive traits were molded by events, people, and circumstances early in his life. Professor Gibson presents fresh information about Marshall's family, youth, and education. He describes Marshall's key mentors, the special impact of his high school and college competitive debating, his struggles to establish a law practice during the Great Depression, and his first civil rights cases. The author sheds new light on the NAACP and its first lawsuits in the campaign that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. He also corrects some of the often-repeated stories about Marshall that are inaccurate.

The only biography of Thurgood Marshall to be endorsed by Marshall’s immediate family, Young Thurgood is an exhaustively researched and engagingly written work that everyone interested in law, civil rights, American history, and biography will want to read.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
University of Maryland law professor Gibson highlights the formative years of the revered African-American civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), in this straightforward professional and personal biography. Organized linearly, Gibson traces Marshall’s family background and academic path, and then builds on this picture by detailing Marshall’s early professional life, during which time the young lawyer engages in a dogged, pragmatic, and principled fight against the overt racism then pervasive in Southern culture. White society’s comfort with brutal, uncontained prejudice and its hostility to change is shocking and makes for riveting reading. Among the blatant practices Marshall and his colleagues challenge are segregated schools, systemically lower pay for African-American teachers, bars on the admittance of African-Americans to professional schools, the toleration of lynching, and a justice system providing little justice for African-Americans. The writing is unadorned and accessible, and augmented by numerous newspaper articles and photos. Marshall’s role as the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court has rightly made him an emblematic figure, and Gibson demonstrates that Marshall’s early years were not mere harbingers of a future place among civil rights giants, but by themselves qualified him for a place in history. Gibson succeeds in making Marshall’s story immediate and vital. Agent: Jean V. Naggar Literary. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
“A well-researched and engaging biography and a fine addition to Marshall scholarship.”  —Kirkus Reviews
“Succeeds in making Marshall’s story immediate and vital.” —Publishers Weekly

"[A]n insightful portrait of a complex man." —Booklist

"The most accurate book ever published about my husband." 
Cecilia S. Marshall, Wife of Thurgood Marshall

"A page-turner. Its compelling story is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand a great man and the history of the civil rights movement. I enthusiastically recommend this book."
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Professor of law, Harvard Law School, and author of The Presumption of Guilt

"Gibson vividly recounts the remarkable journey that shaped one of the most influential icons of the twentieth century."
Marc H. Morial, President and chief executive officer of the National Urban League

"A triumph of discovery and restraint, Young Thurgood transports readers into a vivid, indomitable black culture that equipped this legal giant to remake our world."
Taylor Branch, Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Cartel

"I commend [this book] to every American who wishes to better understand our nation's ongoing struggle for universal civil rights."
Elijah E. Cummings, US Congressperson from Maryland

"A powerful account of Marshall's formative years and new insight into the early years of the NAACP."
Benjamin Jealous, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Library Journal
This biography of Thurgood Marshall from childhood through his early law career is the first approved by the justice's family. Gibson (law, Francis King Carey Sch. of Law, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore) interviewed Marshall's relatives, classmates, and colleagues to paint a comprehensive picture of Marshall's early life. He vividly describes Baltimore (and Maryland) in the early part of the 20th century, from his birth in 1907 to the late 1930s, when he represented black teachers seeking salaries equal to those of their white colleagues. Gibson is especially attentive to the role education and family played in Marshall's life, and pays particular attention to Marshall's experience at Baltimore's Colored High School, where the faculty was college educated and often held more advanced degrees than their white counterparts at other schools. VERDICT This book is as much a history of the black experience in early 20th-century Baltimore as it is a biography of Thurgood Marshall. Readers who are interested in Marshall's early life will enjoy this book, but those who want a more comprehensive study of his career and judicial reasoning should look elsewhere.—Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
In his debut, Gibson (Univ. of Maryland School of Law) looks at the early years of the legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993). Marshall, a brilliant legal mind, became the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967, and before that, he was the chief counsel for the plaintiffs in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, in which school segregation was declared unconstitutional. But while Marshall's law career has been amply covered by other biographers, his earlier life has gotten relatively short shrift. This biography, by contrast, focuses solely on the first 30 years of Marshall's life. Growing up, Marshall intensely discussed politics and race relations with his father. "He never told me to be a lawyer, but he turned me into one," Marshall later said. Indeed, Gibson writes that Marshall inherited his family members' assertive and deeply hardworking natures. Marshall experienced segregation firsthand, attending an all-black high school; he refined his brilliant debating style on the debate team there and, later, at historically black Lincoln University. Gibson also covers Marshall's time at Howard University Law School and his first cases as a Baltimore lawyer, which led to his work with the NAACP and civil rights law. The author, who met Marshall a few times in the 1970s and '80s, writes in his introduction of how he wished to correct the record regarding some details of Marshall's early life--noting, for example, that while some sources have claimed that Marshall was a mediocre student before law school, Gibson's research found that Marshall had in fact graduated high school with honors at the age of 16. But this biography also deftly evokes the atmosphere in which Marshall developed his talents and effectively sketches the many people and events that influenced him. A well-researched and engaging biography and a fine addition to Marshall scholarship.

Product Details

Prometheus Books
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Young Thurgood

By Larry S. Gibson

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Larry S. Gibson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-571-2

Chapter One

Is There an Investigation Taking Place?

"Is there an investigation taking place within the state police department?" Thurgood Marshall asked the governor of Maryland. On October 25, 1933, Marshall, only twenty-three years old and fresh out of law school, gathered with ten other black lawyers in the Baltimore office of Governor Albert C. Ritchie, looking for answers. They wanted to know what he was going to do about the brutal lynching of George Armwood in Somerset County.


A few days earlier, an elderly white woman named Mary Dentson had claimed that she was attacked in Princess Anne, a small town on the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore. While the exact injury she suffered remains unknown, a young black man would pay for it with his life.

Dentson reported that George Armwood, considered "feeble minded" by the locals, had jumped out from behind some bushes as she was walking to town. She claimed that he grabbed her, tore her dress, and frightened her. The local prosecutor, state's attorney John B. Robbins, wasted no time. He ordered Armwood's arrest and charged him with felonious assault. Despite such quick action from the prosecutor, many of Somerset County's white residents, impatient with what they perceived as the slow pace of justice, clamored for Armwood's swift punishment.

The desire of some locals to take the law into their own hands should not have come as a surprise to officials in Princess Anne. Two years earlier, a black farmhand named Euel Lee, who also went by the name "Orphan Jones," stood accused of murdering four members of a white family in the charming Eastern Shore town of Berlin. Concerned for his safety, Maryland authorities moved Lee across Chesapeake Bay to the Baltimore City Jail to prevent a lynching. The practice of transporting blacks to Baltimore "for safekeeping" when they were accused of crimes against whites dated back many years. Officials considered Baltimore to be the only place in Maryland where blacks accused of crimes against whites were safe from vigilante violence.

By the time of George Armwood's arrest, the Euel Lee case had dragged on for two years, with multiple trials and appeals. In October 1933, the Euel Lee matter was coming to an end, with Lee awaiting execution in the Baltimore City Jail. However, his defense team, provided by the American Communist Party's International Labor Defense, continued its ultimately unsuccessful efforts to save Lee from the gallows.

Racial tensions on the Eastern Shore had turned violent when Maryland's most recent lynching occurred in December 1931. A black man named Matthew Williams stood accused of fatally shooting his white employer before turning the gun on himself. Six members of a mob dragged the gravely wounded Williams from his hospital bed in Salisbury, fourteen miles north of Princess Anne, and pushed him out a window and into a crowd of three hundred people waiting below. The mob tripled in size as it dragged Williams to the courthouse lawn. Although he was probably already dead, the lynch mob hung Williams from a tree. A member of the crowd then dragged his body behind a truck to a black neighborhood, where the mob doused his body in gasoline and set it on fire. Some Eastern Shore whites claimed that the Williams incident was a reaction to legal maneuvers by communist lawyers who were delaying the execution of Euel Lee for the murder of the Green family.

With such a deadly precedent, local authorities had good reason to be concerned for Armwood's safety in October 1933. However, Somerset County officials appeared oblivious to the looming threat of mob violence. State's Attorney Robbins openly denied that Princess Anne residents would take the law into their own hands. According to the Baltimore Sun, "Mr. Robbins said he anticipated no trouble on the part of the populace. Their chief wish, he said, was to see justice done as soon as possible, and they understood the county authorities were making every effort for a speedy trial." In rural Maryland, the circuit court judge was the most powerful governmental figure in most of the twenty-three counties. Judge Robert F. Duer—a resident of Princess Anne and the judge on the First Circuit Court, whose jurisdiction included Somerset County—agreed, and he predicted that there would be no trouble and that it would be "perfectly safe" to let the accused man remain in the Somerset County Jail.

Governor Albert Ritchie was more realistic. At the urging of Captain Edward Johnson of the Maryland State Police, Ritchie dispatched twenty-four state troopers to provide safe escort for Armwood across Chesapeake Bay to the Baltimore City Jail. The Afro-American prophetically captured the concurrence of events: "With the Euel Lee case still pending and the lynching of Matthew Williams still fresh in the memories of Marylanders, George Armwood, 28 year old laborer, was rushed to Baltimore Monday night to escape a mob of 2,000 bent on lynching him near the same spot where Williams was hanged and burned."

However, Armwood would have a very short stay in Maryland's largest city. Robbins and Duer quickly ordered Armwood's return to Somerset County for arraignment. The newspapers and radio ominously released the itinerary for Armwood's trip back to Princess Anne, making it easy for the gathering mob to track Armwood's return. "Police Squads Escort Negro Back to Shore," read the headline in the Baltimore Sun. As the mob calling for Armwood's death grew, the Sun also listed the timetable of Armwood's return to Princess Anne: "The guard of State police taking George Armwood, Negro, from the Baltimore City Jail passed through Salisbury at 2:37 o'clock this morning. Princess Anne is about fourteen miles from Salisbury and the police expect to have Armwood in jail by 3:30."

That night, Armwood's fate was sealed. The assault began a few hours after Armwood's arrival in Princess Anne. Accounts of the mob's size varied from one thousand to five thousand people. The mob smashed in the jailhouse door with a battering ram and dragged Armwood from his cell. As they carried him into the street, a teenager cut off one of his ears with a butcher knife. The sight of blood drove the crowd wild. Hundreds of frenzied men, women, and children pounced on Armwood. They punched, kicked, and dragged him through the streets before hanging him next door to Judge Duer's house. They then cut his body down from the tree and dragged it through the streets again. They yanked gold fillings from his teeth and cut clothing and flesh from his body. The lynch mob hung Armwood's body again, this time from a telegraph pole. Finally, in an eerie repetition of the Williams lynching, they dumped his body in a lumberyard, poured gasoline on it, and set it on fire. Standing around the burning body, the men and women in the mob joined hands and sang "John Brown's Body" and "Give Me Something to Remember You By." Afterwards, the members of the mob cut the rope used to hang Armwood into small pieces and chopped up the battering ram. The crowd took home the pieces of those grim instruments as souvenirs.

The threat to Armwood was so obvious that two reporters, including rookie reporter Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., and a photographer from the Afro-American newspaper left Baltimore and headed toward Princess Anne as soon as they learned that Armwood was on his way back to Somerset County. Fearful of taking the more direct ferryboat route east across Chesapeake Bay during a period of high racial tensions, the black newspaper crew instead drove north, crossing the Susquehanna River near the Delaware border, and then south down the length of Maryland's Eastern Shore to Princess Anne. They arrived to find Armwood's charred corpse in the lumberyard with part of the noose still around his broken neck.

The Afro-American published its account with the banner headline "BURN" and a gruesome photograph of Armwood's mangled body. The macabre caption read, "George Armwood a la Maryland." Mitchell's article gave an account of how Armwood's body was found in a lumberyard by the Afro-American reporters at 6:30 a.m. "after 2,000 of Maryland's 'best' staged their 'barbecue' in front of the courthouse." Witnesses had told the reporters that members of the local fire department had sounded an alarm and brought out a fire truck to bring out the mob and begin the assault.


Maryland—home of Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary—is known as the "Old Line State" because of its location on the Mason-Dixon Line. During the 1930s, the northern and western regions of Maryland—home to small farms, mills, railroads, and some mining operations—resembled similar regions in many northern states.

Baltimore was the nation's eighth-largest city, with a population of 804,000. An important industrial center, it was also the cultural and educational capital of the state of Maryland. Prior to the Civil War, it had the largest population of free blacks of any city in the United States. Yet in the 1930s, Southern mores still prevailed in Baltimore, and it was a very segregated place.

Three southern Maryland counties—Calvert, Charles, and Saint Mary's—and the entire Eastern Shore mirrored much of the Deep South, physically and socially. Their economies were built around agriculture and seafood, especially crabs and oysters. On the Eastern Shore, vegetable and fruit canneries and seafood-packing houses operated on seasonal schedules. Black Marylanders lacked significant political power outside Baltimore City and were at the bottom of the social and economic ladders. Many blacks lived in genuine fear for their lives at the hands of law enforcement officers and white civilians who were intent on keeping blacks subordinated.

Despite rigid segregation throughout the state, Maryland had been spared the widespread, wanton violence against blacks that had been rife in other parts of the country since the turn of the twentieth century.


From 1890 to 1940, nearly five thousand black Americans were lynched in the United States. Before and after the Civil War, groups of vigilantes attacked and murdered blacks in the Deep South. Violence against blacks occurred not just in the South but throughout the United States. Almost always, the perpetrators acted with impunity.

The violence against blacks included several mass killings. In April 1873, following a contested election in Louisiana, almost three hundred blacks lost their lives in what became known as the Colfax Massacre.

In July 1917, whites who were fearful of competition for jobs from black migrants fleeing the Deep South sparked the East Saint Louis Race Riots. Three thousand whites gathered downtown and began to beat and shoot blacks. Rioters torched black homes and businesses. The National Guard was called in to restore order, but many of the troops turned against the blacks and joined in the assaults. When the dust cleared, more than one hundred blacks had been killed and six thousand had been left homeless.

In the summer and early fall of 1919, a series of race riots known as the "Red Summer," a term coined by poet James Weldon Johnson, claimed hundreds of lives. Much of the violence was aimed at black veterans of World War I, some of whom were lynched while still in uniform. In the nation's capital, 6 blacks were killed and 150 injured in racial mob attacks. During five days of rioting in Chicago, 50 blacks were killed and hundreds of mostly black homes and businesses on the city's south side were burned to the ground. In Elaine, Arkansas, an altercation between white farmers and black sharecroppers led to the deaths of 5 whites and between 100 and 200 blacks.

In June 1920, three black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota, were accused of raping a nineteen-year-old white girl at gunpoint. Although an examination by the girl's personal physician found no signs of rape or assault, a mob of five thousand to ten thousand surrounded the Duluth jailhouse, broke down the door with little resistance from the deputies on duty, dragged the three suspects into the street, and lynched them.

In 1915, acts of antiblack intimidation, violence, and murder such as these were glorified in the racist cinematic epic The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D. W. Griffith, the film was more than three hours long and cost $110,000 to make. The movie broke many budget and box office records of the day. The film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the white race and protectors of white women. Although many leaders condemned the film and some states banned it from movie theaters, President Woodrow Wilson praised the movie after a private White House screening.

Finally, in the spring of 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot was the deadliest of all. The riot began as the result of a never-substantiated rumor about an assault on a white, female elevator operator by a nineteen-year-old, black shoeshine boy. White rioters converged on a thirty-five-block area of North Tulsa known as the "Black Wall Street," which consisted of more than 1,200 residences and hundreds of businesses. By the time the riot was over, the Black Wall Street had been ravaged by fire, leaving more than three hundred people dead and ten thousand people homeless.

Maryland had not completely escaped the surge in racial violence that had taken place around the turn of the twentieth century. Between 1882 and 1930, Maryland ranked twenty-seventh out of the forty-eight states in the number of lynchings that occurred within its borders. Of the approximately 4,300 lynchings that had taken place across the country during that period, 33 had occurred in Maryland, with all but 3 of the victims being black. However, Maryland experienced a welcome lull in the violence for several years. By the time of the Matthew Williams lynching in 1931, the state had gone twenty years without a lynching. Maryland's last victim prior to Williams, a man by the name of King Davis, was hanged by a Baltimore mob on Christmas Day 1911.

The news of the entirely preventable and gruesome lynching of George Armwood sent shockwaves through Maryland's black communities. Black and white citizens and leaders held antilynching rallies, signed petitions, agreed to form new organizations, proposed antilynching legislation, and demanded to meet with Governor Ritchie.

In the wake of the Armwood lynching, new coalitions and new organizations were formed, but most of them did not last for long. At the urging of his high school teacher and debate coach, Gough McDaniels, Marshall participated in the early formation of the American League against War and Fascism; a broad, interracial coalition of intellectuals, peace activists, socialists, communists, labor leaders, and black leaders who were united by their opposition to fascism in Europe and to racial injustice in the United States. Marshall attended the League's first organizing meeting at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The group resolved to perform a national assessment of the strengths of racial, labor, and progressive organizations with the goal of finding common interests among those groups. At a later conference in Washington, DC, Marshall joined the League's Commission on Minorities, which he immediately persuaded to focus on the issue of educational equality. Marshall argued that providing an inferior education to minorities made them less able to resist fascism. Lack of time and money curtailed Marshall's participation in the League, which became more involved in national political issues before dissolving in 1939.


Thurgood Marshall became a lawyer on October 8, 1933, one week before the Armwood lynching. He faced some sharp realities as he tried to find office space in downtown Baltimore. Most landlords refused to rent offices to black professionals. As a law student living in Baltimore, Marshall had risen at five o'clock in the morning each school day and had walked to the railroad station to catch the train to Howard University in Washington, DC. The reason for the long commute was simple—the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore did not admit blacks. But with a law license and office space in downtown Baltimore secured, Marshall was ready to begin his legal career.


Excerpted from Young Thurgood by Larry S. Gibson Copyright © 2012 by Larry S. Gibson. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Larry S. Gibson (Baltimore, MD) is a professor of law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has been on the faculty for thirty-seven years. He is also a practicing lawyer with the firm of Shapiro, Sher, Guinot, and Sandler. Among his many accomplishments was legislation that renamed Maryland's major airport, the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

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Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ralphemoore More than 1 year ago
The new book by Larry S. Gibson, "Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice" is a very fine read. The excellently written book is the story of Thurgood Marshall's first thirty years of life. I am struck by three things about Mr. Marshall: one his high level of energy and enthusiasm, two, his high academic and social IQ and three how much he was able to do with so little money to support himself or his work. Gibson recounts how much Marshall had to work his way through all levels of his schooling including through law school at Howard University and his early years as a lawyer including his stint working for the national NAACP in New York. School and work, work and part-time work all while pursuing excellence in everything he did. As your read his story, you can see why Thurgood Marshall attained the pinnacle of his career, a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But it was not an easy trip for him. It is even more clear from Gibson's book that life was not at all easy for African Americans in Marshall's early years. Lynchings, inaccess to schools, unequal pay for Black teachers versus white teachers for doing the same jobs were the order of the day. Gibson chronicles how Marshall tackled those issues and others with brains, energy, charm and dogged determination. It's fun to read the story of young Thurgood. You find yourself rooting for him to overcome the obstacles before him. You find yourself thinking how much young persons will gain from knowing about Marshall's early years and the things that shaped and formed him. I give the highest possible recommendation of "Young Thurgood". It reads like a good novel and even though we know where he's headed, it's fascinating to read how he got there, especially the early steps of the journey. For history buffs, lovers of biographies, legal eagles, Baltimore historians and those who just love to read a good story, pick up a copy of "Young Thurgood: the Making of a Supreme Court Justice" for yourself and spread a few coipies around to the ones you love for the holidays. They'll be glad you did. Merry Reading!
ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Lit Amri for Readers' Favorite In Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, Larry S. Gibson has written a riveting portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1967 until 1991. As a young attorney, Gibson's first meeting with Marshall was on July 1st, 1975 – seeking an emergency order for a case that he and his fellow attorney, Charles Curtis Lee, were working on at that time. This is the only biography of Thurgood Marshall endorsed by his immediate family, Thurgood Marshall Jr. Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice is a biography that contains many facts and fascinating insight about the famous lawyer and Associate Justice; it is thoroughly researched and engagingly written in a compelling prose supported by photographs that add more to its depth. Chapter one depicted the harsh life in Marshall’s birthplace – Baltimore, Maryland – a segregated city near the communities that often take the law into their own hands through violent lynching at that time.  This biography is written with all the events that built the basis for Thurgood Marshall’s early life and career; through his collection of childhood stories, family members, favorite mentors, and clients. It also fully describes the obstacles that he had to face and the opportunities that he gained in his community and throughout the nation. Unique, moving, and informative – it is for any readers that are interested in getting to know more about the man who shaped America’s civil rights and law.