Larry Gibson, the Baltimore lawyer and veteran political activist, sat down with The Brew recently to talk about his new book about Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights crusader and the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gibson’s book, which he started a decade ago, explores Marshall’s youth in his racially divided home town, showing how his close-knit family helped him succeed despite bigotry and segregation.
An accomplished debater and painstaking researcher, Marshall rose to become counsel to the NAACP, U.S. solicitor general and finally the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, where he served from 1967 to 1991. He is probably best known for role in successfully arguing the case against “separate but equal” public education in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Marshall was well-known for his sharp wit and self-confidence. Gibson writes that when Marshall met Prince Edward of Great Britain, the royal asked Marshall: “Do you care to hear my opinion of lawyers?” Marshall reportedly responded with a smile. “Only if you care to hear my opinion of princes.”
Gibson was born in Washington but grew up in Baltimore. He is a graduate of Baltimore’s City College and Howard University, and earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1967. He became the first African American law professor at the University of Virginia in 1972.
The 70-year-old Gibson has long been a major political figure in Maryland – serving as associated deputy Attorney General in the Carter Administration and as state chairman of the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992. He was also Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke’s campaign manager and political strategist.
In his Brew interview, Gibson compares his own experiences growing up in Baltimore with those of Marshall, whom he met one evening in July 1975, when Gibson came to the justice’s Virginia home to ask for a court order to block the removal of Baltimore’s superintendent of schools. They spent two and one-half hours talking about the city where they had both grown up.
Gibson’s book disputes some of the Baltimore legends about Marshall, including that he applied and was rejected by the University of Maryland’s law school here. (Marshall attended Howard University’s law school, commuting daily by train.)
“Thurgood Marshall did not apply to the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore because he knew that none of the programs offered by his state’s largest university admitted African Americans,” Gibson writes.
The irony wasn’t that the future Supreme Court justice was rejected by one of the country’s best-known law schools. It was that the racist policy then in place deprived the university of a student who would have been one of its most famous alumni.
Marshall initially refused an offer by the university in the late 1970s to name a building after him because, Gibson writes, he wasn’t sure what campus the building was planned for and had read about racial problems at College Park.
But he consented after his friends in the Baltimore civil rights community explained that the law school in Baltimore wanted to name its new library in his honor. “Despite his acquiescence, the press gave the misleading impression that Marshall had rebuffed the efforts of the students and the school to honor him,” Gibson wrote.
Larry Gibson will discuss his book in the Main Hall of the Enoch Pratt central library at 7 p.m., Thursday Dec. 13.
Gibson will also talk about Thurgood Marshall’s life and times at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, at 7 pm. on Saturday, Dec. 15.