Great storytellers write with their hearts set on the future, even when they are mining the past. Wil Haygood, a cultural historian who has written biographies of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis Jr., has recently completed an official quartet with Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.
Haygood’s latest is a characteristically thoughtful and thorough examination of the life and times of America’s first black Supreme Court justice. The narrative of Marshall’s ascent to the highest court is told with Haygood's trademark intricacy. Showdown illuminates Marshall’s journey as he secured his historic appointment while also unearthing the stories of others who made history in meaningful ways that underscore Marshall's legacy.
When writing about larger-than-life subjects such as Marshall, “I try to go after them through a side door or a window that nobody had peered into,” Haygood says. In the case of Marshall, “I found a way that would satisfy my own nonlinear narrative hunger” by telling Marshall’s story through the five days of Marshall’s confirmation hearings (an unprecedentedly long confrontation). “Then I knew I had the big fish that I would try to reel in as a writer.” The book veers in and out of the hearing room by taking readers to Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida: all of them locales where Marshall landed throughout the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
But the repercussions of Marshall’s status as a Supreme Court justice are the lives of those impacted by his triumph: the descendants of Harry and Harriette Moore, brutally killed by the Ku Klux Klan when their home was blown up with dynamite, their bodies imprinted on their bedroom ceiling from the force of the blast; young people who no longer had to believe there was a limit to what they could achieve; and black citizens who believed for so long that separate and unequal would bar them from realizing any of America’s promises.
Haygood, who was born the year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided, says it became harder and harder for him not to write about 1954, because it is “the year of educational victory in the Supreme Court, because it was such a coming-of-age story for the country, and Thurgood Marshall was at the forefront of that legal strategy.” Brown v. Board shifted the underpinnings of educational segregation in the same way that Marshall shifted expectations of the possibilities for black children in America. Haygood says that he wanted to look across “my landscape of literary endeavors” and be able to say “that I had chosen individuals who could tell the American story”: a politician, an entertainer, a sports figure, and now a lawyer, coming from all four corners of the cultural world and each with a significant imprint on America’s past. When he chose Marshall, he selected a subject from America’s past that his other three subjects—and he himself—“would have to look up to.”
“Thurgood Marshall really stitched black America forevermore into the U.S. Constitution,” Haygood says. “Plessy v. Ferguson legalized ‘separate but equal,’ and Brown v. Board really knocked it asunder and took it apart. So Marshall is the American democratic process at work, in its most beautiful and gritty form.”Joshunda Sanders is the Washington, D.C.-based author of How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why The Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color.