Barack Obama on the Shoulders of Thurgood MarshallBy Steffen • Jan 29th, 2009 • Category: 26th Story, Politics
When the proposal for my book about a young Thurgood Marshall was making the publishing rounds last year, the feedback from editors was immediate and positive. It was just the reaction I was hoping for. A true-to-life version of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring one of the most dynamic and flamboyant lawyers the country’s ever seen. I didn’t think anyone could resist it! And they couldn’t.
“This is a great story,” I’d hear, and the excited editor would bring the proposal into an editorial meeting, hoping to acquire it. But something strange was happening. The sales and marketing teams were nervous. Black narrative history is a tough sell these days, they said. Weeks passed, and I was in shock that I might never be able to tell this Thurgood Marshall story.
At the same time, something strange was also happening in America. An African American was running for president, and he was gaining momentum. His opponents tried to derail him by subtly referring to his race and reminding the public that, “He can’t win.” But it was obvious. Barack Obama was not running as a black candidate. He was running as an American. And he began to win.
Obama’s victories were inspiring and I couldn’t help but see the connection to Thurgood Marshall. Marshall studied under the firm hand of Howard University law professor and NAACP litigator, Charles Hamilton Houston, who drilled it into his head that he couldn’t afford to be thought of as the Negro lawyer in a courtroom full of well-trained white lawyers. “If you expect to win,” Marshall soon discovered, “you better be better.”
And Thurgood Marshall was better. He built an unmatched record of wins before the US Supreme Court and eventually became, in the eyes of one historian, “the most important lawyer of the 20th century.” Thurgood Marshall defied the odds, and he did so with his tenacity and intelligence, his beautiful words and the belief that history was on his side. Just like Barack Obama was doing.
One day, I got a call from Julia Cheiffetz at HarperStudio. We talked about Thurgood Marshall and my proposal and even the “black narrative histories are a tough sell” piece. We both agreed that like Barack Obama, Thurgood Marshall transcended race in his time, and that this story was not just a part of black history, but a part of American history. It was a “Yes We Can” moment, and I was reminded of a speech by the man whose shoulders Barack Obama claims to stand upon.
Early in his career, Thurgood Marshall said, “A most gratifying source of inspiration has always been the challenge thrown down by the poor souls who have repeated over and over again, “It can’t be done.” These court cases and the decisions from them have been made possible by the stalwarts who held faith with our Constitution and the men who have interpreted it to prove, “It CAN be done.”
King’s book on Marshall will be published by HarperStudio in 2010.