Daley’s decision, Thurgood Marshall biography

The earthy Thurgood Marshall probably would have words about Richard M. Daley's segregated Chicago.

In the three days since Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rocked the local political establishment by announcing that he will not seek an unprecedented seventh term, there have been no shortage of effusive tributes to the now outgoing mayor.

From Clarence Page to the Sun-Times editorial board have flowed panegyrics about Daley’s devotion to his city and his effectiveness as “Da Mayor.”

Far less has been written about an aspect of Chicago life that remains largely unchanged 21 years after he first assumed the much-coveted position:

The racial segregation.

Chicago remains among one of top five most segregated cities in America, despite the infusion of hundreds of thousands of Latino migrants during the past two decades.

Large swaths of Chicago-enter the South and West Side-are predominantly, if not almost exclusively, African American, while large parts of the Northwest Side are nearly lily-white.

This of course has implications for the city’s schools, which at this point have about one in seven white students.  Long time educational critic Jonathan Kozol writes about the trend toward continued and even intensified segregation in Shame of the Nation.

At one point in the book, Kozol quotes legendary activist and Congressman John Lewis about saying that the celebration of the landmark Brown v. Board decision anniversaries have become just that-a commemoration of an historic event that has little, if anything, to do with lived reality for much of the nation’s residents.

The late, great Thurgood Marshall was one of the masterminds and driving forces behind the 25-year assault on legalized segregation that culminated in the five cases that eventually were called Brown v. Board of Education.

The driven, ruthless, earthy and iconoclastic Marshall is the subject of Michael Davis and Hunter Clark’s Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench.

The book opens with one of Marshall’s final public appearances shortly after President George H.W. Bush had announced his nomination of Clarence Thomas to replace the retiring Marshall on the bench.

Even before Thomas’ alleged sexual harassment lit a fire storm of controversy, Marshall had taken aim at what he considered a cynical and political decision to appoint a conservative black man with mediocre legal credential to take his place on the nation’s highest court.

Marshall’s intemperate remarks drew rebukes from some legal scholars who had never before heard or read about a sitting judge publicly criticizing a president, but the words were characteristic of Marshall’s nature, according to the authors.

Davis and Clark takes us back to Marshall’s roots in Baltimore, his decision to attend Howard Law School, where he fell under the influence of Charles Hamilton Houston, and then his setting out to dismantle segregation in a methodical, almost impossibly patient, method.

The authors explain that the eventual frontal assault on segregation contained in the Brown case came only after years and years of arguing that the “separate” facilities under the “separate but equal” were not truly so in various arenas of public life.  This section of the book shows Marshall developing and then applying the legal skills that led him to win close to 90 percent of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court.  It also shows his repeated willingness to place himself in physical danger for the sake of his cause.

After a short stint as Solicitor General, Marshall took his place on the Supreme Court as the nation’s first black justice.

While there, he forged a close alliance and friendship with Bill Brennan-one of Dwight Eisenhower’s self-described two greatest mistakes-during the waning years of the Warren Court, and then as two of  a dwindling number of liberal voices during the Burger and Rehnquist eras.

Davis and Clark do not hide their admiration for Marshall, but do not shy away from writing about his less than rigorous schedule in his latter years on the Court and his salty tongue, which could reduce clerks and other to tears.  They also point out some of his less distinguished moments on the bench, such as when his loyalty to Lyndon Johnson contributed to his refusal to vote in favor of addressing the constitutionality of the war in Vietnam.

The book ends where it began, with Marshall’s pointed remarks presaging his death a couple of years later.

It’s been close to 20 years since Marshall died, so we’ll just have to imagine what he might have said about Chicago after 21 years of the second Daley to run the city.

I’m guessing it wouldn’t be pretty.  For those who disagree, I suggest you read the biography and then we’ll talk.

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2 responses to “Daley’s decision, Thurgood Marshall biography

  1. Marshall understood that racism is an American problem, not just a southern one. Poppy Bush’s cynical nomination of Thomas to the court is proof of that. Likewise, maybe we need to reassess our concepts of race relations beyond geography. Racism has often been treated as a Southern issue in this country instead of what it really is, one of society at large. In the south we had the Klan, Jim Crow and poll taxes for sure. Even today election districting, changes in poll hours or locations for local elections in the old confederacy must be approved by the justice department. This despite the fact that the south boasts more black elected officials than any other part of the country. We have a horrible legacy on the issue as a region, but have made great strides.
    When I consider racial legacy of the north I am perhaps more critical than people of that region may be of themselves.
    Isn’t it ironic that so many folks from the east coast came in the early 60’s to help desegregate southern schools while ignoring Boston’s segregated schools? And what happened when Boston finally desegregated a decade later? Fights and riots just like the south. I often remind people that Malcolm X’s father was murdered in a northern town, not a southern one. Further, one of Dr. King’s least sucessful marches was in Chicago.
    Racism is a stain on the American soul…all of America.

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