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Black Legal Giants Struggled With Role, Identity


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a recent report looks at violence against women in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We'll take a look at the findings and how some victims are actually challenging this violence.

But, first, it's been a big week for Supreme Court decisions. The nation's highest court is also where some of our country's biggest civil rights cases were decided, like Brown versus Board of Education that effectively banned segregation of blacks and whites in schools.

In his new book, "Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer," Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack looks at the first African-American lawyers who fought to gain equality for their people, but they constantly struggled with identity. He asked the uncomfortable question, what does it mean to represent your race?

Professor Mack joins us now. Welcome.

KENNETH MACK: Thanks, Viviana. It's a pleasure to be here.

HURTADO: It's great to have you. Professor Mack, you start off the book by saying that a lot has been written about the key figures of the civil rights era, but what's really neat about it and what really struck me about your book is that you look at their struggle in a very different way. You bring up this whole idea of, quote, "the representative man," or the, quote, "representative woman." What is that?

MACK: Well, the idea of the representative man or the representative woman or the representative Negro is what they were called back then - it's a black person who supposedly encapsulates everything that black people could be. It's the person who is educated, who speaks well of the race across the color line to white people, but the paradox of representation is that we also want these people to be authentic. We want them to be like the masses of black people when, by definition, to be representative means that you're different.

HURTADO: What's the tension that emerges from this?

MACK: Yes. The tension that emerges is that black people - minority groups, more generally - always need somebody who can speak to the majority, whether they be courts or legislatures or the executive branch, but we also want these people to be like the masses of the minority group. But of course, the masses of the minority group aren't like the people who are able to speak for the minority group because, by definition, the masses are excluded, segregated, not doing quite as well as the majority. So the representatives are supposed to be both typical and atypical at the same time.

HURTADO: And one of the greats that you write about is Thurgood Marshall, certainly perhaps one of the most iconic and widely talked about legal giants from this civil rights era. He's a big part of your book, and rightly so. How is he one of these representative men?

MACK: Well, Thurgood Marshall, of course, is - as you say, he's someone who's celebrated today. We all read about Brown versus the Board of Education, which was his major accomplishment. We think we know his story. But what I try to show in the book is that there's another story about Marshall that we don't know, that Marshall is somebody who comes to prominence in civil rights politics precisely because he straddles the color line. He can speak to white people. He can seem like white people, but black people and white people also want him to be authentic.

He seems to stand in for the masses of black people who are segregated and excluded from the larger society and he can do that because he's a lawyer.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack about his recently released book, "Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer."

And, interestingly, there are some people who are able to kind of walk this tightrope, navigate back and forth. I'm thinking about the idea of passing and that's oftentimes been used to talk about when a biracial person can pass as white and transition into white society and, certainly, you see that in Latino culture, as well, in this country.

But you talk about passing, not just in terms of skin tone, but in terms of education and mannerisms. Going back to Thurgood Marshall, can you talk to us, how he was able to walk this line and how he was able to use this because, oftentimes, people are able to employ it to their benefit.

MACK: Yes. In the book, I talk a lot about black lawyers who are doing something like passing, but they're not really passing because, of course, everybody knows that they're black, but if you're a black lawyer, you get to do something that most black people don't do. You get to go and speak in an institution that's dominated by whites, an institution where mostly only white people speak, and you get to seem, for a moment, sometimes - sometimes, for longer - you get to seem like a white person and it's like passing and it's key to understanding the just terrific success that someone like Thurgood Marshall had.

HURTADO: We're going to talk about another lawyer that kind of played with these concepts, I guess, and navigated a tightrope, but between being a man and being a woman. That's Pauli Murray, someone who's not very well-known outside of, maybe, legal circles. She's the woman who invented the term Jane Crow. Can you talk about who she is and if you can really talk about her major contributions to discrimination law?

MACK: Yes. Pauli Murray was a black woman lawyer. She was originally born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in North Carolina in Durham and spent a good bit of her career in New York City and eventually became a lawyer.

Well, at the time, everybody knew that there was Jim Crow, which meant that there was racial segregation. Black people were separate from white people and she came up with this idea she called Jane Crow, which meant that sex segregation was just like racial segregation. So let's say there's a law that says that women can't serve on juries. And Pauli Murray's idea, which was radical at the time, was that we should think about all these categories that separate people by sex in the same way that we think about categories that separate them by race and she called that Jane Crow and it continues to affect American society to this day.

HURTADO: Ken, did you, at any point, ever struggle yourself with being or feeling that others were seeing you as a representative man?

MACK: Yeah. I think - of course, I think it's a very common struggle for people from various kinds of minority groups in today's society. We are an integrated society, but nonetheless, we're still divided. I'm a Harvard Law School professor. When I get up and teach, of course, I want my students to just see me as another professor and that's how I approach the classroom, but they don't. I'm a black professor. I am a sort of a representative person.

They're interested in me as a type of African-American and what my presence in the classroom says about American race relations and I accept that. I don't complain about it. It's just, you know, part of living in a society that hasn't put its racial past behind it.

HURTADO: And maybe this is one step going forward in that.

MACK: Yeah, yeah. I think one step. But I think one of the messages of the book is that these kinds of struggles go all the way back that, you know, to have a black president for - who people question, is he really black? Does he have a black agenda? That goes all the way back. That's a question that was asked of Thurgood Marshall. That's a question that was asked of all of these people who are now validated as these heroic figures and it's a question that we don't really have an answer to. Who is a representative person from a minority group? We're constantly struggling with that.

HURTADO: Kenneth Mack is the author of the recently released book, "Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer." He's also a professor at Harvard Law School and he joined us from the studios there.

Thank you.

MACK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.