Longtime journalist and biographer Haygood (The Butler: A Witness to History, 2013, etc.), whose previous subjects have included Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., examines the confirmation battle over the first African-American nominated to the Supreme Court.
During the summer of 1967, Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) appeared for an unprecedented fifth day before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This confrontation between arguably the most consequential appellate attorney ever and the “Old Bulls” who dominated the interrogating panel is both the spine of Haygood’s narrative and the occasion for a number of ancillary stories that lend blood and guts to the superficial civilities of a Senate hearing. So we learn about Lyndon Johnson’s backstage maneuvering, first to create an opening on the court and second, to devise a backup plan in case Marshall’s nomination faltered; Marshall’s surprisingly good rapport with J. Edgar Hoover and testy relations with Robert Kennedy; Marshall’s early life and undergraduate career (he was a classmate of Langston Hughes); his legal training under famed mentors Charles Hamilton Houston and William Hastie; his work for the NAACP and the signal civil rights cases that made his reputation; his controversial interracial marriage; publisher Henry Luce’s threat to Southern senators who held up Marshall’s earlier nomination to the court of appeals; and the extraordinary scrutiny accorded Marshall compared to previous Supreme Court nominees. Most interesting is Haygood’s presentation of the Southern Democrats—Arkansas’ John McClellan, Mississippi’s James Eastland, North Carolina’s Sam Ervin—who considered Marshall “a public enemy of the South” and who strove to embarrass him before the nation and to expose him as dangerous and ill-suited to the high court. The author’s almost wholly admiring portrait of Marshall unfortunately includes some occasionally excessive or inexact language, but the stories are so good the author is easily forgiven.
An intensely readable, fully explored account of what the New York Times called an “ordeal by committee,” an important hinge in American history.