Kid Lit Review of “The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy” by Kekla Magoon 

It is all well and good for kids to be attracted to comic book superheroes, but Thurgood Marshall was every inch a superhero in real life, even without extraterrestrial powers. While some kids may recognize his name for his role as the first Black to serve on the US Supreme Court, most of Marshall’s incredible courage and trailblazing heroism dated from before that time.

As Gilbert King, one of Marshall’s biographers wrote in Devil in the Grove, by the mid-1940’s, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave, “was engineering the greatest social transformation in American since the Reconstruction era.”

As a boy, Magoon writes, Thurgood loved learning about the law, but it also puzzled him:

“The nation’s Constitution says all people are equal, so how can segregation laws treat people differently? Thurgood wondered.”

He went to a Black college (not entirely by choice, but because of segregation policies) and joined the debate team, participating in the first interracial debate between US colleges in 1928. He went to Howard University Law School in DC after the University of Maryland’s law school said it would not admit Black students, but it had a good outcome. At Howard he was mentored by the great legal scholar Professor Charles Hamilton Houston. Thurgood graduated first in his class.

As a young lawyer, he fought the University of Maryland’s whites-only admission policy and won, resulting in the nation’s first court order to desegregate a school.

He took over as lead attorney for New York’s NAACP when Professor Houston retired from that role, gaining national recognition.

Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues in the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP traveled throughout the South in the 1950’s, trying to fight white supremacy using the weapon of the Constitution. Marshall knew he could not win cases at the local or state level, so his goal became to establish firm grounds for appeals on record. If favorable rulings on equal protection could be obtained in higher courts, these precedents could then be used as additional building blocks for the rights of Blacks.

In fighting for justice for Blacks in the South, Thurgood was almost lynched himself; King’s book details the horrific threat to his life after Thurgood decided to defend the Groveland Boys in Florida, where there was a higher per capita lynching rate than Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana.

Thurgood’s most famous case was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case which found school segregation was unconstitutional.

After Thurgood’s first wife died, he remarried a Filipina woman, even though it would be 12 more years until the Supreme Court struck down the ban on interracial marriages. Magoon observes, “Thurgood didn’t care what people thought.”

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Thurgood to become a judge, thus beginning his judicial career. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the US Supreme Court. Magoon writes:

“Thurgood Marshall was sworn in to the United States Supreme Court on October 2, 1967. He was no longer a young Black boy from Baltimore, limited by unjust laws. Now he was one of the people who made sure the laws were fair.”

He retired from the Supreme Court in 1991, and died in 1993 at age 84. Extensive back matter includes a timeline, description of major court cases, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.

Prolific illustrator Laura Freeman enhances the narrative with bright, colorful, and historically accurate digital artwork.

Evaluation: There are few contemporary heroes more worth knowing about than Thurgood Marshall. While this book for kids age 4 and over focuses on the positive aspects of Thurgood’s story rather than, for example, the constant threats against his life and his many hair-raising escapes from death at the hands of white racists, it may inspire kids to look deeper into his biography. It does emphasize his unflagging dedication to others, and his unfailing good humor and optimism in the face of unrelenting efforts by whites to keep him down. His story is utterly amazing and inspirational, and as usual, Kekla Magoon excels at bringing stories of Black heroes to life.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2021

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