Behind the story of Thurgood Marshall’s ascendance in 1967 to the US Supreme Court, the first African-American to attain that honor, are an almost infinite number of other stories — of racial animus and reconciliation, protest and riot, court battles and political maneuvering.
In “Showdown,” Wil Haygood, a former Globe reporter and author of “The Butler,” uses Marshall’s contentious, if sometimes arcane, five-day Senate confirmation hearing as a framework to tell some of those tales, both familiar and less so.
Though slickly written, the book doesn’t have the momentum and polish of the very best nonfiction narrative. It is more of a mosaic, a juxtaposition of flashbacks relevant to Marshall and the civil rights movement. The individual fragments Haygood assembles are often fascinating and sometimes horrifying — glimpses of the dark side of American history that make Marshall’s appointment, indeed his entire career, shine all the brighter.
This is not a full-scale biography, but Haygood does offer a vivid portrait of Marshall as an ace debater and legal mind. His parents could barely scrape together tuition for Lincoln University and Howard University Law School, but it was worth the trouble: He was a dominating presence at both schools, and the law school dean, Charles Houston, became a powerful mentor.
Marshall transformed the racial inequities of mid-20th-century America into opportunities. The whole course of civil rights litigation — notably the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, but also other milestones — is almost inconceivable without Marshall and his NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It was as if Marshall had rethreaded parts of the Constitution itself,” Haygood writes, “stitching the Negro, at long last, into the fabric of the nation.”
Though the book is largely celebratory, Haygood doesn’t conceal Marshall’s flaws — excessive drinking, marital neglect, and infidelity to his first wife among them. (He seems to have done better by his second wife, Cecilia, a native Hawaiian of Filipino ancestry, who defied racial conventions to marry him after he was widowed.)
Whatever his personal failings, Marshall appears saint-like beside the racially bigoted, politically opportunistic Southern senators who opposed his Supreme Court nomination — men such as Mississippi’s James Eastland, Arkansas’s John McClellan, North Carolina’s Sam Ervin (the Constitutional prodigy of later Watergate fame), and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond (the Dixiecrat turned Republican who as a young man fathered a daughter with his family’s black maid).
Haygood sketches the backdrop of the nomination fight, including the Detroit riots, protests against the Vietnam War, and the machinations of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was determined to push through his historic selection (but also had a backup plan).
He reminds us that the indignities of segregation were enforced by the threat of violence, and that Marshall himself narrowly escaped danger on multiple occasions. Others were less fortunate, including a Marshall friend, the anti-lynching and voting-rights activist Harry Moore. He and his wife, Harriette, were killed in 1951 when their Florida house was dynamited.
Haygood interviewed Evangeline Moore, who remembered returning home from college for Christmas to learn that her father was dead, her mother mortally wounded, and their house destroyed. No indictments were ever brought in the case.
Even more ghastly are Haygood’s accounts of black men and women — often accused of crimes they did not commit — being shot by police officers or lynched by Southern mobs. It is hard to fathom the degree of hatred motivating these extrajudicial murders. One particularly gruesome torture killing, in 1904, involved James Eastland’s father, Woods, who was seeking revenge for his brother’s shooting. He was brought to trial, but a judge dismissed the charges against him.
The son now chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and “set opposition strategy” against Johnson’s nominee. At the hearings, Marshall, by then a federal appeals court judge, faced long hours of questioning, led by former prosecutors Ervin and McClellan. Much of it was designed to tie him to rising black urban unrest and crime, to question his fealty to the Constitution, or just to rattle him. But, taking counsel from the White House, he kept his temper in check, mostly sidestepped rhetorical traps, and acquitted himself with dignity.
In the end, the South could not stop the nomination. And on the court, Marshall became, as expected, a staunch liberal voice. Haygood doesn’t treat his court tenure in depth, but does report that Marshall’s opinions were “often marked with a sly combination of earthiness and erudition.”
He tells us, too, that Johnson and Marshall remained close and talked frequently. After he left the presidency, Johnson informed the justice that he wanted to write a book about the nomination battle. He died too soon, and now Haygood has ably filled the gap.
and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America
By Wil Haygood
Knopf, 416 pp., illustrated, $32.50
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.