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'Showdown' review: Wil Haygood on how Thurgood Marshall made history at the Supreme Court

Thurgood Marshall testifying at his Senate confirmation hearings

Thurgood Marshall testifying at his Senate confirmation hearings in 1967. His Supreme Court nomination is the subject of "Showdown," a new book by Wil Haygood. Credit: AP

SHOWDOWN: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, by Wil Haygood. Alfred A. Knopf, 404 pp., $32.50.

Early in Wil Haygood's "Showdown" -- a chronicle of President Lyndon Johnson's momentous 1967 nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court -- you find out that as a swashbuckling civil rights attorney traveling throughout the segregated Deep South during the 1930s and 1940s, Marshall liked to spend long layovers between train rides going to what one of his secretaries called "they-went-that-a-way pictures," meaning movie Westerns.

It's a tiny detail when measured against the far more significant events tabulated in "Showdown." But it makes you pause to consider the political sensibilities of those who made or regularly appeared in Westerns -- John Wayne, for example -- and that such men were most likely not, in those years, inclined to donate money to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under whose auspices Marshall had been risking life and limb to battle wrongs against his fellow African-Americans. Yet you understand how a steady diet of films about bold men staring down menace on the rugged frontier would fortify Marshall as he likewise ventured into hostile courtrooms with little more than simple justice on his side.

Haygood isn't concerned here with such sidelong cultural transactions -- though if he were, "Showdown" might have been the kind of book that breaks new ground in recounting a tumultuous and epochal era in American history. As it is, "Showdown" does an admirable job using the events surrounding Marshall's historic ascension to the High Court as a prism through which to view the mid-20th century advancement of the nation's race relations with all its terrors, exaltations and complexities.

And there can never be enough books that bring back to life the enthralling and flamboyant black lawyer from Baltimore who led the triumphant charge that climaxed with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional. Because a full-scale biography of Marshall is not "Showdown's" principal agenda, Haygood fashions just enough of a life story to serve as both prologue and backdrop to Johnson's nomination of Marshall and the ensuing congressional hearings.

Nevertheless, Haygood compresses as much colorful detail as he can about Marshall's education at historically black Lincoln and Howard universities, his death-defying adventures as a defense lawyer in backwater Southern towns and his outsized personality in bad times (the death of his first wife in 1955) and good (with one friend remembering how Marshall celebrated his legal victories with feasting and music, even though he couldn't "turn a tune any more than an alligator").

Indeed, LBJ, a swaggering force of nature himself, recognized a kindred spirit in Marshall, telling him in June 1967, "I'm nominating you [for the Supreme Court] because you're a lot like me: bigger than life and we come from the same kind of people."

Conventional wisdom that spring was that "what LBJ wanted, LBJ got" and so even a nomination as boundary-breaching as Marshall's was a fait accompli, especially given the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Yet as "Showdown" reminds its readers, that Democratic majority included white Southerners still resentful toward black progress and Marshall's conspicuous role in achieving those gains.

Some of these senators tried vainly to exploit calamitous race riots in Detroit to stigmatize Johnson's nominee while others, notably North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin and South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, put Marshall through a wringer of niggling constitutional hairsplitting.

Johnson's White House, according to Haygood, was nervous enough about such nitpicking that they had another black candidate for the court, Philadelphia Republican William Coleman, in the wings if Marshall's nomination failed.

Everybody knows that Marshall went on to become almost as consequential as a justice as he was as a litigator. The question is whether everybody, especially younger readers, remembers what it took to get him there. Haygood's book accounts for all these factors, even if it sometimes goes to rhetorical extremes to sell its story. The comparison of Marshall to Atticus Finch, for instance, seems even more labored now than it might have before Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" came out this spring. Yet both that book and this one, whatever their respective flaws, have important roles to play in our ongoing dialogue on race that has, if anything, gained greater urgency in recent years.

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