Penn State, Lincoln University, and Thurgood Marshall made history together on Feb. 26, 1927. Larry Gibson, author of the book Young Thurgood the Making of a Supreme Court Justice, gathered the historic details at the University Library’s special collections where he stopped before giving a lecture at Penn State Law. “Penn State and Lincoln held the first interracial debate in the history of the United States,” Professor Gibson said. “The debate topic was on the repeal of prohibition. Penn State was for it,” Gibson said laughing. He applauded the Penn State debate coach John Frizzle who had been on the University faculty for many years as one of the influences that “helped shape the men who then shaped the nation.”
The Penn State team, which included Gilbert Nurick, founder of McNees, Wallace, & Nurick, won the debate by a score of two to one. A Philadelphia newspaper that covered the event said that with some additional experience Thurgood Marshall might grow into a very good debater. “You know that Denzel Washington movie The Debaters?” Gibson asked. “That happened years later. Penn State was first.”
Gibson, also a University of Maryland law professor, described his book as having two main characters—Thurgood Marshall and the State of Maryland. “He was very much a product of Maryland’s border state status. Maryland has been called the northernmost of the southern states and the southernmost of the northern states,” he said. While Brown vs. the Board of Education was his most famous case, Marshall spent most of his career protecting the right to vote. Gibson said, “I have focused not so much on what he did but what he was like and how he got to be that way.”
Gibson said he wrote the book because he was frustrated by the many misperceptions about Marshall. “He was smarter and poorer that he has been characterized,” Gibson said. He dispelled a number of myths about Marshall. For example, the long-held belief that Marshall wanted to be a dentist but flunked chemistry. “I show in my book his college application in which he clearly states he wants to be a lawyer. And I show his transcripts where he got a B and C+ in chemistry,” Gibson said.
Michael James, Jr., president of BLSA which co-sponsored the event said, "Professor Gibson shared insight into the life of a legal pioneer, enlightening the audience of Justice Marshall's childhood upbringing, true passion for civil rights and humble character away from the courtroom. Professor Gibson's presentation was well researched and filled with hidden truths and humorous stories. BLSA was truly honored to help bring this program to fruition."
“I can’t think of a more fitting way to end our celebration of Black History Month,” Phil McConnaughay, dean of the Law School said. Gibson signed more than 100 free copies of his book for law students, faculty, and visitors.
"Justice Marshall had a tremendous influence on my passion for social justice and decision to become a lawyer,” said Professor Shoba Wadhia. “Gibson's personal stories of Marshall were illuminating and made me feel even closer to Marshall."