In a year when volunteers from Maryland played a major role in re-electing America’s first Black President, it is worthwhile recalling the lasting civil rights legacy of our State.
This has been University of Maryland Law School Professor Larry Gibson’s mission for nearly four decades. I know this because he has been my mentor since high school.
I was Larry Gibson’s law clerk in 1975 when Professor Gibson, a skilled civil rights advocate himself, first met Thurgood Marshall late one August night. He and a colleague were seeking an emergency order in the case of former Baltimore City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Roland N. Patterson.
For a couple of hours, Justice Marshall regaled the young lawyers with his obvious affection for his home town of Baltimore This truth about Baltimore and the man whom many consider Maryland’s greatest gift to America set my teacher and friend off on a journey to discover Justice Marshall’s beginnings.
In his resulting biography, “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice,” which had its public debut at the Pratt Library on Dec. 13, Professor Gibson brought that odyssey to a remarkable conclusion.
Larry Gibson thoroughly and brilliantly illustrates how, during the first three decades of the 20th Century, the creative tension between Maryland’s border state culture and our tradition of advocacy by the largest “Free Black” population outside the Old South called young Thurgood Marshall to the Civil Rights Movement.
Professor Gibson traces Thurgood Marshall’s unrelenting efforts to prepare himself for a life of advocacy – and how the civil rights lawyers of his youth became his role models and colleagues. He reveals how our own Baltimore AFRO American and the Oliver and Mitchell families, in particular, earned special commendation by their dedicated efforts during the struggles for justice, economic opportunity, fair housing and our other civil rights.
In a very real sense, he allows us to view Thurgood Marshall in double exposure because he reveals the Justice through our lense. By recounting his life of our community, he allows us all to see ourselves in this real and often heroic chapter of our history.
I commend “Young Thurgood,” however, not only to African Americans but to every American of every ethnic background who wishes to better understand our nation’s ongoing struggle for universal civil rights.
We are living in a time when callous efforts at voter suppression continue to plague our civic and political life. Those attacks, as well as the ongoing struggle for economic opportunity, better education, affordable healthcare and decent housing, reveal a hard but necessary truth.
The Civil Rights Movement in America, far from being over, is just beginning.
This reality, as much as our profound admiration for a giant in America’s legal evolution toward a more just society, is why “Young Thurgood” should have a honored place on the bookshelves of every home where it can touch our hearts and minds and those of our children.
For myself, both as an American of Color, and as a lawyer, I can't help having a special place in my heart for Justice Thurgood Marshall, who once lived on Druid Hill Avenue not far from where I live today.
In 1935, two years after he began his law practice here in Baltimore, the young lawyer took up the cause of Donald Murray in what, ultimately, was a successful legal effort to integrate the University of Maryland School of Law.
On Murray's behalf, Marshall & Charles Hamilton Houston challenged Maryland's racially exclusionary policy in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Circuit Court Judge Eugene O'Dunne agreed, and the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed in Murray v. Pearson.
As a result, I could attend the University of Maryland School of Law in 1973.
Juan Williams, in his 1990 Washington Post article on Marshall, reported the recollection of another of my mentors, NAACP lawyer Juanita Jackson Mitchell:
"The colored people in Baltimore were on fire when Thurgood did that....They were euphoric with victory. . . . We didn't know about the Constitution. He brought us the Constitution as a document like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments."
Thurgood Marshall had embarked on a 18-year journey which would take him through Chambers v. Florida, Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
It was a journey that, ultimately, would make him Solicitor General of the United States and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
In Young Thurgood, Professor Gibson’s exhaustive research tells us the beginnings of that historic effort. As Americans, we need to know this story. We need to know why and how Thurgood Marshall and others helped us to become a better nation.
As we reflect upon Professor Gibson’s answer to those questions, we, ourselves, will be better prepared to continue the Civil Rights Movement of our own time.
We must never forget Juanita Jackson Mitchell’s words: We didn't know about the Constitution. He brought us the Constitution as a document like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments.
Moving forward with that legacy remains our challenge today – and for reminding us of this calling, Professor Larry Gibson deserves our commendation and applause.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.