It was often said around the Johnson White House that what LBJ wanted, LBJ got. And in the summer of 1967, LBJ wanted to put Thurgood Marshall, a Negro, on the Supreme Court. There was a small problem: there was no vacancy nor had a single sitting justice been talking about stepping down from his lifetime appointment. Johnson looked to his Texas roots and saw clearly how he could solve the problem.
Lyndon Johnson had first met the associate justice Tom Clark back in Texas in 1938, when Johnson was a young congressman. The Johnson and Clark families went on outings together, their little children romping across wide lawns. "A friendship developed that included the whole family; it was much more than a professional relationship between the two men," Tom Clark's daughter, Mimi Clark Gronlund, would recall. When Johnson's daughters, Lynda and Luci, became engaged, the Clarks threw parties for them. (There was something interesting about Texas men who had more amenable attitudes toward Negroes than others in the state. "I knew him when he first came to Washington," Thurgood Marshall would come to recall of Tom Clark. "I knew his mother. And his brother in Dallas. . . . His mother, way back -- this will go back to the late-thirties -- her housekeeper, a Negro, ate dinner with her. They ate right at the same table together. Now, back in the thirties, you didn't do that in Texas.") Clark had originally been encouraged to come to Washington in 1937 by the House majority leader, Sam Rayburn, who was Johnson's mentor. Clark joined the Justice Department as a special assistant. After the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Truman appointed Clark attorney general. And when the Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy died in 1949, Truman nominated Clark to the court. Court openings were created, often, by grave and declining health, or death. But in 1967, as Justice Clark's family knew, he was in good health and had not at all talked of resigning from the court. In order to nominate Marshall, Johnson had to make some fast chess-like moves.
First, Johnson encouraged Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to resign, then appointed Katzenbach undersecretary of state. Johnson intended to appoint Ramsey Clark -- the deputy attorney general, who happened to be Tom Clark's son -- to the position permanently. But Johnson knew others -- inside the legal profession and out -- would wonder about a perceived conflict of interest because Clark's father sat on the high court. But Lyndon Johnson knew people; he knew the dynamics of fathers and sons, how a rising son could make a father swoon with pride, and how a father, if called upon to make a sacrifice for his one and only son, might do it almost as reflex, without giving it a second thought. "He talked to Tom Clark to tell him he wanted to appoint Ramsey attorney general," Johnson's aide Joseph Califano would recall. "Johnson needed a vacancy to put Thurgood Marshall on the court. So Tom Clark had to retire, and Johnson got the vacancy." Decades later, recalling the Johnson maneuverings, Califano could still beam with amazement: "It was a classic Johnson move."
So grateful was Johnson for Tom Clark's resignation that he sent Clark and his wife on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world. Ostensibly, it was a goodwill mission sponsored by the Department of State with Clark expected to exchange ideas with foreign officials about their respective judiciaries, but it really was a gift to the Clarks for Tom Clark's stepping down. The couple set foot in more than a dozen exotic locales, among them Hong Kong, New Zealand, Jordan, Indonesia, Greece, Turkey, Tokyo, and finally Rome -- where they dined in style and saw the ruins. Mrs. Clark called it their "great adventure."
The Johnson White House aimed to use surprise as a weapon in its strategic rollout of the Clark-Marshall announcements. And it worked, because some of the Senate Judiciary Committee members -- especially the southerners -- complained bitterly about the swiftness of the move, which had caught them off guard. "He'd just call Senator Eastland, Senator Thurmond, and say, 'Senator, I'm nominating Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court,' and before they could say anything," says Califano, "he'd hang the phone up and call the next senator." McClellan, James Eastland, Strom Thurmond, and all the other Judiciary Committee members were treated with similarly fast phone calls.
The Marshall announcement unleashed waves of pride within the Johnson White House, a pride that bubbled especially among Negroes nationwide.
The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, had a peculiar and vexing relationship with blacks throughout history. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt had the educator -- and onetime slave -- Booker T. Washington to the White House to dine. The engagement was private, unannounced. But word quickly seeped out. The southern newspapers let the epithets fly: "Roosevelt Dines a Darkey." "A Rank Negrophilist." "Our Coon-Flavored President." "Roosevelt Proposes to Coddle the Son of Ham." "At one stroke, and by one act," The Richmond News opined of Teddy Roosevelt, "he has destroyed the kindly, warm regard and personal affection for him which were growing up fast in the South. Hereafter . . . it will be impossible to feel, as we were beginning to feel, that he is one of us." Not many years later, in 1915, the D.W. Griffith movie "The Birth of a Nation" opened in theaters. It was based on Thomas Dixon's novel "The Clansman," a vile piece of fiction that painted blacks with evil stereotypes. They were thieves and sexual marauders lusting after white women. The NAACP condemned the movie, but not President Woodrow Wilson, who hosted a screening at the White House, then heaped praise on the movie. Wilson also went on to segregate the federal workforce in the nation's capital. A Negro was not appointed to an executive White House position until President Eisenhower's first term, and even that move was fraught with pain. E. Frederic Morrow -- a Bowdoin College grad, a CBS public relations executive, a man of steely resolve and great dignity -- had done campaign work for the candidate Eisenhower. Members of Eisenhower's team were so impressed with his work they promised a White House position. When Ike won, Morrow's phone did not ring. He complained. He was finally given a job at the Commerce Department. But it did not sit well with him; he had been promised a White House position. Republican allies of Morrow's in New York City put pressure on the White House to deliver on its promise, and Morrow finally became a White House staff member in 1955.
Little wonder Negro newspapers around the nation proudly trumpeted the Marshall nomination.
But with pride aside, the Johnson White House knew the first stop was the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was a historic committee and one of the original standing committees in the Senate, first authorized in 1816. Throughout its history, the committee took on a wide range of assignments, from bankruptcies, to state boundaries, to contested Senate elections. The committee even played a role in the aftermath of Reconstruction, settling matters when it came to Confederate states and their restoration to the Union. It had long been a committee steeped in thorny challenges and national urgency. "There was clear knowledge that there would be a fight," remembers the Johnson aide Clifford Alexander. "Johnson knew because he came out of the leadership of the Senate. It was key to get the nomination out of the Judiciary Committee. The Democrats were the segregationists."
Excerpted from "Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America" by Wil Haygood. Copyright © 2015 by Wil Haygood. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.