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Journalist and Biographer Urges
Students to Follow in Justice Marshall’s Footsteps

By Ioana Patringenaru | November 20, 2006

Journalist Juan Williams signs books after his talk Friday at Mandeville Auditorium.

Juan Williams first interviewed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was a Washington Post reporter. On one wall of the justice’s office hung a brief from Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark court case that ordered the end of segregation in U.S. schools. A bust of Frederick Douglass, a leader in the abolitionist movement, stood on Marshall’s desk. And behind that desk was Justice Marshall, then about 80 years old.

“There was Thurgood Marshall, like living history, sitting in front of me,” Williams told a packed audience Friday at Mandeville Auditorium.

Williams told that story and many more during an hour-long speech, part of Marshall Week celebrations at UCSD. He also urged students to follow in Marshall’s footsteps.

“Each and every one of you in this room needs to realize that you’re inheritors of Thurgood Marshall,” said Williams, who wrote a biography of the justice, “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.”

Studying hard, getting good grades and a good job is fine, Williams said. But students should never lose sight of the inequities that still plague the nation. More than 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, schools are still segregated. Low-income and minority students also are more likely to attend schools that offer a vastly inferior education, Williams said. Today, about half of black and Hispanic students drop out of high school and the achievement gap between minority and white students remains astounding, he said. Williams then urged students to become a voice for those who can’t be heard.

“You have to realize that you have the power to shape America in the future,” he said. “That is what it means to walk in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall.”

Marshall became a crusader for civil rights in college, Williams pointed out. It wasn’t always so. He used to love partying and enjoyed pranks. Marshall was the kind of guy who would take a cow to the university’s president office and make it relieve itself there, Williams said.

But at the same time, Marshall and his classmates faced segregation in their daily lives. His friend and classmate, Langston Hughes, confronted him and asked him to get involved in the fight against segregation. Marshall did just that.

He now knew he wanted to be a lawyer and went to law school at Howard University. He became the architect of several major lawsuits challenging segregation. He successfully argued a case to desegregate the University of Maryland Law School. He also challenged housing contracts that kept blacks, Jews and other minorities out of the country’s best neighborhoods. He became the lead counsel for the NAACP. He also was the lead attorney in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court found "separate but equal" public education unconstitutional. In 1967, Marshall became the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the end of his talk, Williams also made a argument about personal responsibility and poverty, which he lays out in his new book: “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It.” Avoiding having children out of wedlock, staying away from drugs and crime, staying in school and on the job are key factors here, he said. Several audience members challenged him during a Q&A session, but Williams stuck to his guns.

“To me, it’s the most powerful message to deliver to people who are at risk,” he said. “To me, it’s a blessed message.”

After the talk, Espoir Kyubwa, a bioengineering major, said he had mixed feelings about Williams’ speech. It’s fine to talk about blacks taking responsibility to get out of poverty, the student said. But to achieve equality, you also have to advocate for systemic reforms. “I think both sides are strong,” said Kyubwa, who came from Congo to the United States 10 years ago.

Freshman Mary Nasief has been in the United States for five years. Her family came from Egypt and she didn’t speak English when she got here, she said. She added she agreed with Williams. “If you want an education, you go get it,” she said. “Racism shouldn’t be the reason you don’t go for all you want.”

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