Education & Family

Setting Precedent

Long before writing Young Thurgood, Larry Gibson broke down Baltimore’s political barriers.

In the garage beneath the downtown law offices of Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler, Larry Gibson lifts a piece of luggage loaded with hardcover copies of his award-winning book, Young Thurgood, from his trunk. He intends to wheel the heavy bag up Charles Street to the city courthouse for a book signing with local bar association members. But first, the 71-year-old Gibson chats with a parking attendant, who wants the attorney to present his book to his church.

“I’m saving the last day in June for you,” says Gibson, nodding. “Let’s get it confirmed. The calendar’s filling up.”

By his count, Gibson has done 44 signings since the book’s release last December. Walking north past the Hotel Monaco, he stops and notes that this is the old headquarters of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the company name still engraved over the archway—for which the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his father once worked as dining-car waiters.

Weaving through traffic, Gibson—without a hint of resentment—recalls his own experiences growing up in segregated Baltimore, such as getting kicked out of a recreation center with his older brother and cousin. “We were leading both the Ping-Pong and pool tournaments,” he says, laughing. “That’s what made me mad.” He talks about setting pins at Stoneleigh’s duckpin lanes—“where I wasn’t allowed to roll a ball”—and working on a bakery truck as a teenager. “We made deliveries to places, like Highlandtown, that I didn’t know existed, and I thought I knew every neighborhood in Baltimore,” Gibson says, with another laugh. “We also delivered different kinds of bread, like pumpernickel, that I’d never seen.

“Before I went to work in the Carter Administration, for a background check, they asked for all my addresses, and I realized we moved every 18 months,” he continues. “Of course, I’d only known all the black neighborhoods.”

In 1956, however—two years after Marshall, a Baltimore native, won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision—Gibson entered City College high school. Voted the storied institution’s first African-American class officer, he moved on to Howard University, becoming a student civil-rights leader, motivated, he says, by a basic desire to “fully participate” in life. After Columbia Law School, he was the first “negro,” as the Baltimore News-American reported, appointed to clerk for a federal judge in Maryland in 1967.

And then Gibson clerked for Venable, Baetjer & Howard, one of the state’s two biggest law firms—his goal at the time to buy his parents, a janitor and a cook, a house. He recalls that period now, before his presentation in the courthouse’s Barr Library, where he spent long hours researching cases as a Venable clerk. “I had every intention of working for Venable; there was an expectation that I would. But then Martin Luther King was shot and I’m thinking, ‘Why am I going to work for the establishment?’” Gibson says. “And I changed my mind.”

“There was a need to open the door in local politics, and that’s what he did,” says Schmoke. “Larry was a street fighter.”

With Baltimore convulsed in riots following King’s assassination, Gibson instead decided to join the city’s top black law firm, Brown, Allen, Watts, Murphy & Russell, and immediately set out to elect the first black leaders—including two of those partners listed above—to citywide offices. Quickly developing a reputation as a high-energy, no-holds-barred, grassroots organizer, Gibson served as campaign manager for Joseph Howard, who became the first black judge on the Baltimore City Supreme Bench and the first African-American to win a citywide seat in the fall of 1968—just seven months after King’s death. In the next election cycle, Gibson directed the campaigns of Milton Allen, the first African-American elected Baltimore State’s Attorney—and the first to hold a chief prosecutor’s position in a major U.S. city—and William Murphy, who won a Municipal Court judgeship. Paul Chester, whose campaign Gibson also directed, became the first African-American circuit-court clerk the same year, 1970.

Finally, the young organizer and his law firm supported Parren Mitchell, who became the first African-American from Maryland elected to Congress in 1970. Mitchell, who had lost in his 1968 bid, won by 38 votes and would serve eight terms. In two years, the color of Baltimore’s political landscape had begun a transformation.

“I thought it was important for African-Americans to gain full participation—beyond voting—in the political process,” says Gibson of those groundbreaking campaign efforts. “Part of that meant removing barriers to holding political office.”

Later, Gibson became best known locally for directing the two successful State’s Attorney races and three successful mayoral campaigns of Kurt Schmoke, the first African-American elected to Baltimore’s highest office.

“There was a need to open the door in local politics, and that’s what he did,” says Schmoke, who stepped down last year after a decade as dean of Howard University’s School of Law. “Larry was the street fighter, very much engaged in all of the campaigns, an aggressive campaigner on the retail level. He started with judgeships, with citywide races, then Congress, and up from there.”

But for as much as Gibson relished the battle of campaigning, he never had an interest in governing himself. If nothing else, his interests always ran too wide to focus on a single all-consuming job like holding public office. Actually, he admits even trying to discourage Schmoke from running for office initially. “People would accuse me of pulling the strings in the background, but once the election was over—I was out of it,” Gibson says. Half the time, he adds, perhaps only half-joking, he didn’t even know the names of everyone in Schmoke’s cabinet.

A former high-school hurdler who wore the black-rimmed glasses in style in the 1960s, Gibson cut a lean, more hard-edged figure as a young man. Today, in silver frames, with a grandfather’s receding hairline, he seems perfectly comfortable in his elder-statesman-like role. He admits to a natural mellowing—“maturing” in his words—over the years. “I’ve gained wisdom, I understand some things better than I used to,” Gibson says. “Everything is not black or white anymore. There are more shades of gray.”

Reminded that he was often described as brash in the media and worse by political foes—former Gov. William Donald Schaefer once was quoted calling him a racist (a comment which still draws the ire of longtime best friend and attorney Ron Shapiro)—Gibson shakes his head and smiles. Then, however, the old intensity flashes as he looks over his glasses to make eye contact and his point. “I was in Baltimore during the riots and my friends and I didn’t take that track,” he says. “We went about changing things through the political and legal system.”

“I was upset because I had to pay for a lunch I didn’t want, and I knew they hadn’t really integrated. I called that my Sit-in Salad.”

But for all his accomplishments, city politics has been just one aspect of Gibson’s varied career, which includes practicing law as well as nearly 40 years teaching at the University of Maryland School of Law—after becoming the first black law professor at the University of Virginia. (“Charlottesville was nice, but too quiet,” he says. “My wife and I missed the excitement, the noise, and everything going on in the city.) Former students include Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Gov. Martin O’Malley, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, among others.

A few more things Gibson has done: He served six years on the City Board of School Commissioners after former Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III appointed him to the board at 26. He successfully defended a Baltimore Black Panther Party member on kidnap and murder charges and fought high-profile housing discrimination cases with Shapiro in the 1970s. He served in the U.S. Justice Department as associate deputy attorney general. He helped get the University of Maryland law library named after Marshall and was the principal advocate behind renaming BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. A lifelong photographer, Gibson has curated exhibitions around Maryland’s first black attorneys, civil rights, and Marshall’s career. Later, he served as a campaign advisor to the presidents of Liberia and Madagascar. He even represented the professional baseball umpire’s union for seven years.

Currently vice chairman of the city’s Historical and Architectural Preservation committee, Gibson remains involved with the effort to preserve the former Read’s Drug Store building on Howard Street, where then-Morgan College students staged some of the earliest Civil Rights-era sit-ins. For his part, Gibson recalls staging a sit-in as a 19-year-old Howard student at the old Oriole cafeteria on York Road in the fall of 1961. Except, in order to avert any disruption or media attention, the cafeteria unexpectedly decided to integrate—for a day. “I had grabbed a meal that I didn’t even like, baked fish—the fish I’d always had was fried—and a salad with carrots, raisins, and mayonnaise. Then, they rang me up, and I didn’t have any money. I had to borrow money to pay for it.

Now, he’s added historian and author to his resume, chronicling Marshall’s formative years in Baltimore and the environment that shaped the first black Supreme Court justice. In the book, Gibson brings to light interviews he taped with Marshall’s relatives and classmates in the 1980s—going so far as to document his grades at Baltimore’s “Colored High School” and college debating career—as well as his early, critical civil-rights battles in the state.

“I thought it was a great book and called Larry to tell him so,” says Shale Stiller, partner at DLA Piper and former president, CEO, and chairman of The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, who said he bought about 75 copies of the book to give away. “It’s a poignant and direct account of what it was like for African-Americans to live in Maryland in the 30 years after the turn of the century.”

In a sense, in writing about Marshall’s life and early career in Baltimore, Gibson has come full circle.

On July 1, 1975, at 11 p.m., Gibson and another young lawyer drove to Marshall’s Falls Church, VA, home to ask the Justice to sign an emergency order blocking the firing of City Schools Superintendent Roland Patterson.

“We started out nervous, but we kept telling each other;that the worst that could happen was Marshall would not let us in or he would refuse to sign the order,” Gibson says. “But, we had difficulty finding Marshall’s neighborhood and house. We got lost several times. As we wandered around, frustration became the dominant sentiment . . . and [we] considered going back to Baltimore. The only feeling I remember as we knocked on the door was hoping that we were at the right house.”

The Justice, in his bathrobe, invited the attorneys inside.

“It took him about 10-15 minutes to take care of the paperwork, and he said, ‘You know [Chief Justice] Burger is going to knock this down tomorrow,’” recounts Gibson. “But the Patterson thing was political, and he knew we were trying to get a hit in the media, which we did, and buy time. After that, we talked about Baltimore until 2 a.m. He wanted to know about certain neighborhoods, if this building or that building was still standing. He was completely different than the press accounts of him I’d read that referred to him as cantankerous—and that he didn’t like Baltimore.”

Thurgood Marshall Jr. appreciates that Gibson’s book corrects the perception that his father held hard feelings regarding his hometown. A Washington lawyer and former Clinton Administration official, he has been on friendly terms with Gibson for two decades and even remembers that first late night when the young Baltimore attorney knocked on his family’s front door. “My father had nothing but affection for Baltimore,” he says. “He experienced some things there he didn’t like, but that was because of the times in which he lived, not particularly tied to the city.”

“There are so many formative moments that professor Gibson brings out that affected my father’s life,” Marshall says. “It’s amazing how much I learned about my father and my relatives—some of whom I only knew by their first name or a nickname. I’m flabbergasted at times by his attention to detail.”

“. . . that the worst that could happen was Marshall would not let us in or he would refuse to sign the order.”

Gibson’s curiosity about Marshall and his early life and career was piqued further after a brief meeting at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse dedication on Calvert Street in 1985. Marshall was chatting with Mitchell’s widow, civil-rights activist Juanita Jackson Mitchell, when Gibson approached and asked a nearby bystander to take a picture of him with the Supreme Court Justice. It was the last time that he’d see Marshall in person. The bystander struggled with his camera for a few moments, prompting Marshall to lean toward Gibson and quip, “So, what am I supposed to do, kiss you?”

“I never got over that first encounter in July 1975,” Gibson says. “The man whom many legal historians consider the most important American lawyer of the 20th century had spent more than two hours talking with two young lawyers from Baltimore who showed up at his front door late at night. I guess, that’s when I became a Thurgood Marshall addict. I wanted to learn more about him.”

Although he didn’t have a book in mind then, Gibson set about interviewing Marshall’s relatives and classmates—while they were still around—over the next few years. It took another 25-plus years before Gibson would complete his biography, at the urging of Karen Rothenberg along the way, another former University of Maryland law-school dean, who, Gibson jokes, “got tired of hearing me complain that somebody should set the record straight and write this book.”

Schmoke says the link between Gibson and Marshall goes deeper than the biography (which is dedicated to Gibson’s wife, Diana, and Marshall’s wife, Cecilia). It’s a shared commitment to equality and progress, he says, one that Marshall’s law-school dean at Howard—whom Gibson highlights in the book—tried to instill in his students.

“Larry would fit in the mold of Charles Hamilton Houston, who was Thurgood Marshall’s mentor,” says Schmoke. “Houston said lawyers can be either social engineers or they can be parasites on society, and he was always encouraging lawyers to be social engineers—advancing their clients’ cases, of course—but always working for positive social change.

“Anybody can be a lawyer,” Schmoke says. “Larry Gibson is an example of a lawyer as social engineer.”

Appraised of Schmoke’s words, Gibson, researching a potential follow-up book on Marshall, pauses for a moment. “That’s stated pretty strongly, the line about ‘parasites on society.’ That’s not language I’d use. But when I went to law school, we were only graduating two black lawyers in the state a year. It wasn’t like you had a choice, you had to sit on boards, become a trustee or chairman of this organization or that—you had to be a leader. There wasn’t the luxury of ‘just’ being a lawyer.

“And yes, I think we moved the ball forward. I know we did. But it wasn’t like any of the things I did ever felt like a sacrifice,” adds Gibson. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”