“Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation”
By Rawn James Jr.
Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 276 pages.
By Jordan Michael Smith
Before Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, before freedom marches and sit-ins, before Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, the fight for African-American civil rights was a struggle waged largely through the courts. As supposed bastions of impartial justice immune to prejudice, the courts seemed the best hope for African-Americans looking to attain their civil rights. And two of the most important warriors in these legal battles were Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the subject of Rawn James Jr.’s new dual biography.
James, a D.C. lawyer and first-time author, recounts the lives of Houston and Marshall from their meeting at Howard University to their cooperation on Supreme Court cases. Their family lives and interactions with the larger black community are outlined, as are the court victories for which they became justly famous.
Using personal letters, contemporary newspaper accounts and recent scholarship, James reveals the internal workings of Houston and Marshall’s relationship, which started as Houston mentored Marshall as a law student. Marshall’s transition from student to the most esteemed attorney in the civil rights movement is particularly granted attention in the book.
“Root and Branch” concludes four years after Houston dies, with Marshall winning the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which would famously declare segregation to be unconstitutional. Even after this historic victory, however, American blacks were not granted their basic rights. As the book ends, we know that, as James writes, “Southern officials seized the phrase [‘with all deliberate speed’] as license to desegregate at a pace of their own choosing and, accordingly, their integration efforts all but ceased.”
The book is occasionally moving, and sometimes has language as lovely as its subject is noble.
Despite these virtues, however, “Root and Branch” never succeeds in conveying the drama of the period.
Unlike the best histories of the civil rights era, such as Taylor Branch’s trilogy “America in the King Years,” “Root and Branch” is never a gripping read. The narrative is weak, with history-changing events appearing as disjointed, almost unrelated episodes, rather than as part of an unfolding story with an ending very much in doubt.
In addition, James fails to create penetrating character studies. Charles Hamilton Houston is sketched reasonably well, appearing initially as a domineering university dean whose dictatorial ways originally caused the university’s enrollment to drop. But Thurgood Marshall never emerges as a full human being, existing in these pages only as the icon, not the flawed human being he was.
James’ sympathies intrude on his ability to critically assess his subjects, though they also at times make for an almost poetic read. To the extent that the relationship between Houston and Marshall has gone unexamined, “Root and Branch” is a valuable book — but it’s not a particularly memorable one.