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.