Wil Haygood’s book Showdown, which tells the story of Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall’s road to Supreme Court justice, has been lauded by major publications including The Atlantic, and made many critics’ lists for best books of 2015. The Washington, D.C.–based author—who has written biographies on subjects including Sammy Davis Jr. and who penned the article that was the basis for the 2013 film The Butler—joined us to talk about why he picked Marshall as a subject, the difficulty of writing about racism in America, and the stunning surprises he found during his research.
How did you decide to write the book in the first place?
I was very eager to find a way into Thurgood Marshall’s life, but I didn’t want to write a traditional biography. When I looked at his 1967 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and looked at the other nominees who came before him, it struck me as stunning that all the other hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee lasted four hours or less. Thurgood Marshall’s hearings lasted five days, and they were stretched across 11 days. There was great drama right there. When you look at some of the most seminal cases that Marshall took in front of the Supreme Court and won. They’re all set in the Deep South, and the four major figures on the Senate Judiciary Committee were all southerners. The very men who are going to lead the assault against Marshall he’d already defeated across the South with seminal civil rights cases. You had this titanic faceoff in the summer of 1967, when the country was on fire with protests over the Vietnam War and lack of equality for blacks. I just thought everything that took place in room 2228, where the hearings were held, told this great story about this nation—how we got from there to here—and about the life of Thurgood Marshall.
You came up with a unique way to structure Marshall’s story by honing in on the process of him becoming a Supreme Court justice.
When you think of Marshall, his appointment was so historic. He goes onto be on the [Supreme Court] for 20-plus years, and I think most of the writers have felt, ‘I’ve got to tell that story. That’s the history. Why look at those damn hearings?’ And nobody had ever looked at the hearings, ever. When I told my editor, ‘I want to do a book about Thurgood Marshall,’ he said, ‘I’m not really interested . . . Why do you want to do that?’ and I said, ‘I really want to focus on these five days of hearings, these southern senators he clashed with, and the fact that riots happened, that two of the senators on the committee’s fathers had committed murder.’ And my editor stopped me and said, ‘Now that’s a book that I would very much want to publish.’
What was your research process like?
I did a lot of research in archives, and I traveled across the country finding people who had worked with Marshall, who knew Marshall. Arkansas Senator John McClellan had said that he didn’t want his archives opened until 50 years after his death. It was about 50 years and a few weeks after his death that I started this book, so I flew to Arkansas and spent a week going through his archives. I found amazing things.
There was this letter from a lady named Barbara Ross, who wrote to the senator on the second day of the hearings, which she’d been listening to on the radio. And she told him how hurt she was that she knew that the senator was going to vote against Marshall, and she said he was letting his racial views stymie his fair judgment toward Marshall. And her last sentence was, ‘Someday, senator, there will be a Negro president.’ It was stunning. When I came across that letter I was almost moved to tears. Then something magical happened. My sister told me I should look up Barbara Ross’s family up when I’m on my book tour . . . The city clerk in Texarkana, AR, gave me a number and I dialed it. A frail voice answered . . . and [after I had explained who I was] said, ‘In 1967, I was 18 years old and I was in college and I was listening to the hearings. And my daddy had bought me a manual typewriter, and I went out on my back porch and typed that letter. My goodness, where did you get that letter?’
Have you been able to visit her?
I’m going out there in February. I’m giving a talk at the Houston Public Library, and then I’m going to get in the car and take her a book.
Did she remember that she’d correctly predicted the future?
When I told her, she said, ‘Praise the Lord, it all came true.’ But I don’t think she quite caught the weight, the majesty of what she’d written.
You chose to write this book when there are people who are still alive that were involved in his cases and worked with him.
As I went through the months and the years of writing the book, time became very apparent to me. I would go interview some retired federal judge, who knew Thurgood Marshall, and then I would look in the newspaper three months later and that federal judge would have passed away. I was constantly saying to myself, ‘If I hadn’t flown to see him, I would never have heard that genuine voice.’ There was a gentleman here in Washington . . . I had several wonderful meetings with him because he’d worked with Marshall on the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in the 1950s. And I opened the paper one day, about six months after I had first met him, and he had passed away. It was very poignant on so many levels.
Some events you detail in the book, including lynchings and murder, must have been difficult to discover and detail. How did you deal with writing them?
As a writer, your emotion is involved in your selection—that you choose to tell, or your book subject matter. That’s your heart and soul right there. Then your training as a narrative writer takes over, and you know how to tell a story, and you know how to step back from time to time and let the facts speak for themselves. And other times, you really have to go to the bone of literary writing, and you have to tell your story with every bit of literary drive that you have. There were several times when I would write a certain chapter and it would be so brutal that I would have to take a walk in the open sunshine.
Did your mission in telling Marshall’s story evolve?
The more I think about it, emotion has played a role in me telling the story. In 1954, an African-American woman born in Alabama, who’s now living in Columbus, OH, is rushed to the hospital. She’s pregnant with twins, and she gives birth. She gives birth into a new era, where she could look at her children and say, ‘The law of the land now fosters integration.’ She had a boy and a girl, and I’m the boy. I think of my mother, and knowing that, when I was an infant, she was reading all these stories in the paper about this nation having to change, or being forced to change. That’s pretty powerful. In many ways, the book is a tribute to Thurgood Marshall and to my mother.