Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Biography as History

Lately, I have been reading literature on biography as an approach to writing about history, including legal history. I am reviewing commentary about the advantages and disadvantages of the genre. I am also reading some compelling examples of this historical form.

My interest in biography springs from two sources. First, I found researching and writing the biographical dimensions of my current book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the project's most enjoyable aspects. The book devotes considerable attention to how the background of each featured lawyer or activist shaped her, and thus her understanding of equality. This biographically-rooted approach served a critically important role for me: it humanized the actors--all of them. The ability to see the humanity of each actor freed me to envision a history of civil rights in which the legendary Justice Marshall--the figure who (understandably) consumes so much intellectual and political space in civil rights literature, remained present, but less all-encompassing. As I began to understand the humanity of each actor, it helped me depict varieties of civil rights activism across time—as opposed to a single, putatively legitimate approach. I hope the biographical touches in the work prove similarly illuminating to readers.

The book identifies three waves of dissenters from the racial status quo--people on the scene well before and well after Marshall. One of those dissenters was A.T. Walden, a lawyer whom some others dismissed as an “accommodationist” of segregation because he did not toe the NAACP’s line on school desegregation and because he embraced "gradualism" in other areas. Yet, I discovered that Walden—a son of former slaves, an honors graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and one of the South’s first black lawyers—certainly did advance civil rights. He fervently supported black voting rights and fought the Klan inside and outside of the courtroom, among other efforts. Once I traced Walden’s life and the stories of other locally-based figures, and then placed them in conversation with the national movement, I questioned the idea of an LDF-centric civil rights law and history. (See Walden, pictured on the right in 1944, when he served as a Smith v. Allwright "white primary" tester in Atlanta; the photo is used courtesy of the Atlanta History Center).

The second source of my interest in biography grew out of the first. Because I found the biographical aspects of Courage to Dissent so enjoyable and the life and work of one of its subjects—Constance Baker Motley—such a rich platform for exploring the topics of civil rights, women's rights, human rights, and judging, I am undertaking Motley's biography as a new project. (More on Judge Motley later.)

So, what biographies or literature about the genre top my reading list at the moment? My list includes: G. Edward White, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Inner Self; G. Edward White, Earl Warren: A Public Life; G. Edward White, The American Judicial Tradition: Profiles of Leading American Judges; Paula J. Giddings, Ida: A Sword Among Lions; William Nelson, In Pursuit of Right and Justice: Edward Weinfeld as Lawyer and Justice; Barbara Babcock, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz; Melvin Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life; Joan Biskupic, Sandra Day O’Connor; Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement; and Chaudhuri et al, Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources.