Review: Showdown

Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, Wil Haygood. New York: Vintage Books, 2016.

Summary: An account of the life of and rise to the Supreme Court of Thurgood Marshall structured around the five days of hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Probably the most shining legacy of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson were the advances he oversaw with civil rights against the opposition of southern Democrats in his own party. Among his foremost accomplishments was the appointment of the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.

This work by Wil Haygood focuses on the showdown between Marshall and the southern members of the Senate Judiciary Committee opposed to his nomination during its hearings on the nomination before it was forwarded to the full Senate in the summer of 1967. The work is organized around the five days of hearings through which Haygood weaves the narrative of Marshall’s life. While the southern Senators on the Judiciary Committee could not block the nomination from going to the Senate, they employed strategies to slow it down and to cast sufficient aspersions on the character and judicial record of Marshall to jeopardize his confirmation.

James Eastland, the committee chairman, whose family had participated in a lynching and whose office was a shrine to the Confederacy had been thwarted in his own state by Marshall’s court efforts with the NAACP and was snubbed by Marshall, who refused to step into Eastland’s office to make a courtesy call. That office represented everything he had fought. Strom Thurmond, who had a black daughter, kept in secret until years later and Sam Ervin, known for his knowledge of the Constitution joined him. They tried to portray him soft on crime, trick him into discussing how he might rule on future cases, accused him of Communist associations and judicial activism and tried to make him look unschooled with arcane questions about the Constitution. Marshall, who had long dealt with wily white lawyers sidestepped the traps they set for him.

Against the backdrop of the hearings, Haygood tells the story of an extraordinary life. A descendent of slaves, Marshall grew up in Baltimore, went to Lincoln University as a classmate of Langston Hughes and excelled on the debate team, then to Howard University Law School. By 1936, he had joined the national staff of the NAACP, often traveling at great risk into the Jim Crow South. With the NAACP, he successfully argued 29 of 34 cases in the Supreme Court, notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka resulting in the desegregation of public schools. He gave critical leadership to the NAACP’s legal strategy to gain civil rights for Blacks. In 1961, President Kennedy name him to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1965, President Johnson appointed him Solicitor General, where he won 14 of 19 cases that he argued.

Haygood more briefly summarizes his work on the court, touching on the hundreds of majority opinions and hundreds more dissents that he wrote, the clerkship of future Justice Elena Kagan–more discussion of his tenure on the bench and appraisal would have been helpful in rounding out the story. Marshall stepped down in 1991, dying two years later.

I could not help but think as I read of the opposition to the confirmation recently of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose confirmation, if anything was far more of a close run thing despite legal credentials that if anything exceeded those of Marshall. It is fifty-five years later, but it appears that if anything, we have regressed as a country. A mark of the courage of both justices was that they did not relent in the face of the distortions of their records and character that they had to face. Haygood captures the fortitude of Marshall throughout his legal career and during those five days of interrogation. Perhaps someday someone, maybe even Haygood, will do the same for Justice Jackson.

Review: Answering the Call

Answering the Call

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016.

Summary: The memoir of Judge Nathaniel Jones, from his early civil rights efforts to his work as general counsel of the NAACP, and then service as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In 1909, sixty black and white citizens who were fighting for the civil rights of blacks issued “The Call” for others to join the long struggle for civil rights. This led to the formation of the NAACP. One of those who responded to The Call was a black attorney and publisher in Youngstown, Ohio by the name of J. Maynard Dickerson, who eventually served as a Youngstown city prosecutor in 1943 and served as an early organizer of the NAACP’s efforts in Youngstown. Eventually, he employed Lillian Jones, the wife (eventually divorced) of a black mill worker. Her son Nathaniel began writing sports columns for Dickerson’s paper, The Buckeye Review, and Dickerson took an interest in then boy, from insisting on precision of writing and speech, to how he dressed and comported himself. He took him along with him as various national NAACP leaders spoke in Youngstown.

This book is a memoir of that boy, Nathaniel R. Jones who went from early efforts to protest a local segregated roller skating arena, and a local restaurant, to work his way through law school. He came to the attention of Robert F. Kennedy in 1961 and was named an Assistant U.S. Attorney. In 1963, he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders. His understanding of the root causes of racial unrest ultimately led to his being named general counsel for the NAACP, coordinating legal cases challenging school segregation in the north, segregation in the military, and notably, securing the pardon of one of the wrongly accused Scottsboro Boys, the last living survivor. Fulfilling a promise to name black judges to the Federal bench, President Jimmy Carter nominated Jones for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seated in Cincinnati. Retiring from the bench in 2002, he played an important role in the establishment of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and an outspoken advocate for preserving the legal freedoms he and his predecessors in the NAACP fought so hard to secure.

This last is a major theme of the book. Influenced by his mentor, Jones recognized the critical importance of securing legal decisions to enforce the provisions of the Constitution and civil rights laws. He contends that laws are not enough. Nor are protests enough. He takes us through the careful, meticulous legal research and strategies employed by the NAACP resulting in landmark major decisions desegregating schools, upholding voting rights, and employment law. On the bench, he sought to educate his fellow justices of the experience of blacks in society, and the challenges black attorneys faced in the legal community. He also makes stinging remarks regarding the jurisprudence of Justice Clarence Thomas, which opposed many previous rulings and supported a reversion to “states rights” that upheld a separate but equal doctrine. The book concludes on a hopeful note during the presidency of Barack Obama, albeit one calling for unrelenting legal vigilance to prevent the erosion of civil rights so hard won.

A lesser theme, but one running through the book was the power of a mentor. Toward the end of the book, he recounts his relationship with a high school student:

I invited Raymon to accompany me to the University of Dayton Law School’s hooding ceremony, where I was to deliver the commencement speech. When I picked him up for the event, he emerged handsomely dressed in a new suit, with a tie in hand. He said, Judge, would you help me with my tie? I don’t know how.” I readily agreed and there on the street corner moved behind him in order to begin the process. As I began to perfect the knot, my mind went back over fifty years to the moment when Dickerson, this distinguished lawyer, performed the same act for me, a teenager.”

Judge Jones died this year at the age of 93. A Federal courthouse in Youngstown bears his name. He lived a life of unrelenting pursuit of The Call, fulfilling the promise his mentor saw in him. The memoir reflects the careful writing of a lawyer and a deeply abiding passion for justice. Through this work, his life can continue to be a model of the persisting, relentless pursuit of justice accomplished not through louder voices but better arguments. It is a story that can speak to anyone black or white who cares about a more just society, as did the collection of sixty black and white leaders who first issued The Call.