Growing up in Baltimore in the early 20th century, Thurgood Marshall was an avid observer of the civic landscape. His father, William, encouraged the precocious youngster at every turn.
“They’d visit the courthouse, where they would watch the motions of justice,” Wil Haygood writes. “It was so clear to see — for father as well as son — that the wheels of justice so often churned differently for blacks and whites.”
This was the set of circumstances that Marshall would spend his life fighting. His heroic legal work on behalf of oppressed black citizens would help win him a spot as the first African-American on the nation’s highest court. But before he was sworn in, Marshall would have to endure a racially tinged battle in the halls of Congress.
Haygood, author of an exceptional biography on boxer “Sugar” Ray Robinson, tells the revered jurist’s story in his stirring new book. “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America” recounts the grilling Marshall endured from segregationist senators during his confirmation hearings, and surveys a towering career forged in the face of institutional bigotry.
Marshall had superb credentials when President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to replace retiring Justice Tom Clark in June 1967. As the lead lawyer in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, and in numerous other proceedings, Marshall helped topple many of the discriminatory barriers that had existed in the classroom, the job market and the voting booth.
Although his breakthroughs were celebrated by millions, anti-integrationist Southern politicians did their all to stand in his way. The Senate Judiciary Committee included several such lawmakers as it met to consider Marshall’s candidacy that July.
The committee was chaired by Mississippi’s James Eastland, who, Haygood notes, had spoken in favor of “white supremacy.” He was joined by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, a segregationist presidential candidate in 1948, and others who were openly hostile to Marshall, despite his service as a federal appeals court judge and as the nation’s solicitor general.
For an unheard of five days, his opponents subjected Marshall to a “withering drumbeat” of insinuations, Haygood writes, contending that he was a judicial activist who would set criminals free. Thurmond tried (unsuccessfully) to embarrass Marshall by quizzing him about legal arcana, and Eastland asked Marshall, “Are you prejudiced against white people in the South?”
Throughout, Marshall was imperturbable. “We applied the law of the land,” he responded when his appeals court record was questioned.
When a vote was finally taken, it wasn’t close — those on the committee who recognized Marshall’s qualifications prevailed by a ratio of more than 2-1. Full Senate approval followed, and he was sworn in that October.
Haygood is a master of the ticktock narrative. He’s equally adept at contextualizing the “showdown” that gives his book its title, explaining how some of Marshall’s detractors hoped that resentment linked to recent urban riots would help them derail his nomination.
His prose, meanwhile, is a consistent pleasure. Rather than opting for rhetorical fireworks, he ends what might be the book’s most important chapter with a simple yet deeply resonant image: “A short while later, word reached the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court that he would have to report to be measured for his judicial robes.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.