Author Wil Haygood examines Supreme Court nomination of Thurgood Marshall

by LP Green, II

Journalist Wil Haygood has profiled a range of prominent African-Americans: Sammy Davis Jr.; Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; Sugar Ray Robinson; and Eugene Allen, the man who served as butler to eight U.S. presidents.

But the Columbus native feels a special connection to the subject of his most recent book. Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, published on Sept. 15, follows the turmoil that surrounded the nomination in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson of the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. Haygood was born in 1954, the year that the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, (a case argued by then-NAACP chief counsel Marshall), declared that laws establishing separate public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

Haygood’s book is the focus of “Columbus READS: One City, One Book,” with central Ohioans encouraged to read Showdown sometime between Monday and Nov. 12.

Haygood will discuss his book Tuesday evening at the Lincoln Theatre. He recently spoke with The Dispatch.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: Anyone who is black and who was born in 1954, as I was, is always reminded that 1954 was historic and seminal. … It unleashed into the American mindset that separate was definitely not equal.

The choice of Thurgood Marshall (as Supreme Court justice) was an event that changed the history of America.

Q: Supreme Court nomination hearings usually last a day or less, but Marshall’s dragged on for five days. Why?

A: People had drawn out his hearing to … upend his nomination, simply given the fact the Senate Judiciary Committee was ruled by James Eastland of Mississippi, who was the chairman, and Sens. John McClellan of Arkansas, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Sam Ervin of North Carolina.

I could see these senators and their psychology about the law, equal rights, about race, about Thurgood Marshall’s past. You also see Marshall’s brilliance. It got very heated in the conference room. There was a lot at stake for President Johnson. The Vietnam War was underway and there was so much going on. I wondered how much attention the White House was going to be able to give to this nomination. But they said this was their highest priority in the summer of 1967.

Q: What can you tell us about Marshall’s upbringing?

A: He was born in 1908 in Baltimore, the home of John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln. Johnson said, “I’m going to finish what Lincoln started by nominating Thurgood Marshall.”

His mother was a schoolteacher; his father, a railroad porter (who) told his son about some of the horrific racial riots he had been snared in; he had seen terrible things.

Marshall went to Lincoln University (Pa.), then to Howard University Law School, where he was mentored by a legal giant, Charles Houston, dean of the law school.

Marshall graduated in 1933 at the top of his class. Returning home, he had a small law practice, then joined the NAACP. He conceived the NAACP legal defense fund. In his mindset, you could travel the country filing state and federal lawsuits on behalf of blacks or anybody who had been done wrong. He fought for voting rights, housing and jobs.

Q: Did he have other passions?

A: Marshall became an expert at the sacredness of the U.S. Constitution in the eighth grade. He carried it around with him. It was like his bible. He looked around the country and said the country is not abiding by its own laws. By not treating blacks fairly, the country has ignored the U.S. Constitution as written. … He was obsessed about that. It drove him.”

Q: Does Marshall’s impact compare to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

A: King didn’t frighten the Southern senators as much as Marshall. There’s a difference between church and state.

But Marshall became a federal appeals court judge. He was the state. He was the law. He became the face of the law. By 1967, Eastland considered him public enemy No. 1.

Q: So how did the nomination get approved?

A: Sens. Joe Tydings, Ted Kennedy, Birch Bayh, the young Democrats. They reminded the standing-room-only crowd of Marshall’s brilliance.

A crucial vote was Sen. Stephen M. Young of Ohio, who believed in Marshall’s odyssey. He had voted for civil-rights bills in the past. … The final vote was 62-11 — fewer than eight votes from a filibuster.

Q: What if he had not been confirmed?

A: There becomes no will to nominate an African-American for many years.


By Alan Johnson from The Columbus Dispatch



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