The second major Marshall biography in recent months (after Juan Williams's Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, p....


A DEFIANT LIFE: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America

The second major Marshall biography in recent months (after Juan Williams's 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 racism"" 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 achieved--often at considerable personal risk--as 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 colleagues' 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. Bali'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 what Marshall called ""power, not reason."" However, Bali's 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, Bali's biography nevertheless stands as an extension of Marshall's own dissents--a clarion call for conscience in future Supreme Court deliberations.

Pub Date: Jan. 27, 1999


Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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