The most important civil rights attorney of the 20th century had escaped men who wanted to kill him because of what – and whom – he stood for. He’d grilled and been grilled in courtrooms all the way up to the highest in the land, the one he now hoped to join as its first African-American justice.
But as he sat before a Senate panel debating his fate, a Southern firebrand treated Thurgood Marshall as if he were a contestant on a quiz show called “Know Everything or Else.”
Could Marshall name the committee behind the 14th Amendment and identify its members? What legal basis did supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 rely upon? What did a 19th-century congressman see as difficulties “in congressional enforcement of the privileges and immunity of article IV, section 2, through the necessary and proper clauses of article I, section 8?”
The man behind the questions, Senator Strom Thurmond, wanted to place extra obstacles in front of Marshall, forcing him – and only him – to be a superhuman in order to rise. It’s an old strategy in American life, set in code through poll taxes and impossible quizzes at the ballot box, and one that Marshall had devoted his life to extinguishing. Yet here it came again, the rigged expectations game, threatening to snuff out his far-from-guaranteed bid to join the Supreme Court.
Many of us remember a later series of dramatic Senate hearings over a black man who hoped to become a Supreme Court justice, but Marshall’s own inquisition has largely been lost to history until now. In his new book Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America, historian Wil Haygood expertly brings an remarkable time and place back to life.
As he writes, Marshall was black and liberal, two too many questionable traits for many senators as the hearings began in what would become known as 1967’s “Summer of Love.”
Haywood, author of the article that inspired the film titled “The Butler” and biographies of Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson, is a master at bringing characters from history to life. In “Showdown,” he’s especially skilled at helping readers understand the personalities and motives of the men – and they’re all men – who sought victory at the hearings.
On Marshall’s side was President Lyndon Johnson, who told him that “I’m nominating you because you’re like me: bigger than life, and we come from the same kind of people.” On the other side were Johnson’s occasional allies, Democratic senators from the South raised on segregation, Civil War nostalgia and – as one stunningly put it on the Senate floor – the belief that “the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Other men in “Showdown” refuse to fit into their assigned roles, like the maverick South Carolina ex-judge who championed Marshall. Or landed parts they didn’t want, like the Republican black man surprised to find himself recruited as an alternate if Marshall lost. Then there’s the most vivid character of all, previous Haygood biography subject Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a loose-cannon Harlem congressman who “bedeviled the White House with his antics” during the hearings and even managed to get thrown out of Congress but still return.
Against this backdrop, Marshall somehow becomes one of the less colorful figures in “Showdown” even as he jousts with the senators hoping to catch him in a revealing slip.
He actually had an exuberant personality, full of passions and joy in life, as best revealed in 2012’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.” In “Showdown,” a college acquaintance named Langston Hughes – yes, that one – hints at his personality, remembering him as “rough and ready, loud and wrong, good natured and uncouth.”
As Haygood writes, Marshall was the “steady drumbeat” in contrast to Congressman Powell’s “jazzy horn.” It’s sad to wonder about how Marshall must have had to hold himself in, even in private conversations with potential allies, to show the extra gravitas expected of a black man who hoped to move up.
But that he did. Marshall joined the Supreme Court and became one of its most influential and renowned justices. He lives on in the names of campuses, scholarships, and a new journalism outfit devoted to criminal justice.
Other echoes remain. “Judicial activism,” the epithet of Marshall’s congressional foes in 1967, is still a verbal weapon in jousting over judges.
Conservatives continue to challenge Marshall’s record, even weaponizing it in their failed bid to shut down the Supreme Court nomination of a onetime Marshall law clerk named Elena Kagan. But thanks to the events chronicled in “Showdown,” America still keeps time to the “steady drumbeat” of Marshall’s legacy.