Correction: The original version of this review said that President Dwight Eisenhower called out the National Guard to protect black students desegregating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and called out the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to insure the students’ safety. This version has been corrected.


(Wally McNamee/The Washington Post)

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School, a professor of history at Harvard and the Carol K. Pforzheimer professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”

The opening chapters of Wil Haygood’s engaging “Showdown” make clear that even if Thurgood Marshall had not made it into history books as the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, he would have deserved a place in American history as one of the best, most effective lawyers of his generation. In truth, he should be considered one of the best lawyers in the nation’s history, for during the 1940s and 1950s he tied together a string of legal victories that not only served the aims of his clients — they helped transform American society.

To do this he went straight into the belly of the beast. Working at considerable personal danger to himself and his family, as the chief lawyer in a series of cases designed to destroy racially based segregation, Marshall crisscrossed the South, challenging the system of legalized white supremacy. As he made the rounds of “courthouses in the South . . . folks would come for miles, some of them on muleback or horseback,” to witness the phenomenon of a black man “who stood up in white men’s courtrooms.” The successes rolled in. Smith v. Allwright, decided in 1944, did away with the Texas Democratic Party’s primary system that was limited to white voters. In 1948, Shelley v. Kraemer struck down the use of racially restrictive covenants, not just in the South but in neighborhoods across the country. In 1950 came Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma. These cases, decided on the same day, held that segregation in the nation’s professional and graduate schools was unconstitutional.

Marshall’s “titanic achievement,” as Haygood reminds us, was the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, “which outlawed the separate-but-equal doctrine that had been the law of the land and ordered the desegregation of public schools.” With this, Marshall, already well known, ascended to heights rare in a profession not often seen as producing heroes — lawyer jokes and ambivalence about us abound. The Baltimore-born, Lincoln University and Howard Law School-educated attorney became a hero to millions and remains so to this day.

Of course, not everyone was a fan. By the time Marshall was slated to reap what many considered the ultimate professional reward for his legal prowess — a seat on the Supreme Court — as Haygood notes, he was “Public Enemy No. 1” to white Southerners still smarting from his successful strikes at what they considered their entirely just and proper way of life. In chapters covering each day of Marshall’s confirmation hearings before the Senate, Haygood details the ways in which Marshall had to confront the Southern senators on the Judiciary Committee, a veritable “murderer’s row” of staunch segregationists who were determined to scuttle his appointment.

What a cast of characters! There was the chairman of the committee, James Eastland of Mississippi, who had a plantation and whose father had allegedly lynched a black man. In a conversation with the new Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Eastland mused aloud that “you Kennedys always care about the Negras” (usually spelled Nigras). In addition to being a segregationist, John McClellan of Arkansas — described as a “dead ringer for the comic Jack Benny” — apparently held a grudge against Marshall. He had been angry with Marshall since Brown, because the decision prompted nine black students to attempt in 1957 to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. After the group faced grave threats, President Dwight Eisenhower called out the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students from throngs of howling and spitting white Arkansans. From that time on, when McClellan went home and talked with his constituents, Haygood writes, he had to “endure all the chatter about Little Rock, about how the government was attacking states’ rights, how Negroes were trying to take over the schools.”

Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was also “lying in wait” for Marshall, hoping to trip him up while, unbeknownst to everyone but some in his home state, supporting his own half-black daughter. Sam Ervin of North Carolina — the self-described “country lawyer” from Harvard Law School, who would later gain fame during the Watergate hearings for his waggling eyebrows and down-home demeanor — was also part of the group of long-serving Southern senators whom Edward Kennedy referred to as the “reliable old bulls.” They, he said, “controlled Judiciary as a sort of fiefdom.”

There were larger-than-life characters on the other side, too, not the least of whom was Marshall himself, with his great sense of fun and the fearlessness with which he pursued his goal of ridding the country of racial discrimination. The man who appointed him to the court, Lyndon B. Johnson, thought he recognized a kindred spirit. He said to Marshall, “I’m nominating you because you’re a lot like me: bigger than life, and we come from the same kind of people.”

Until recently, the conventional wisdom held that Johnson was a president who had a solid record on civil rights but whose accomplishments in that arena were obscured by his disastrous handling of the Vietnam War. The image of Johnson as a civil rights champion was tarnished to some degree in the movie “Selma,” which took artistic license to depict him as insufficiently supportive of the Voting Rights Act. Haygood makes plain that Johnson used every power at his disposal to ensure that Marshall’s appointment would be a success, employing his famous capacity to arm-twist, cajole and persuade in service of a result that he clearly believed would be good for blacks, good for the country and, in addition, good for his legacy. Reminiscing some years after the hearings, Johnson spoke in plain terms about what defeating the segregationists in the Senate meant: “There was probably not a Negro in America who didn’t know about Thurgood’s appointment. All over America that day Negro parents looked at their children a little differently, thousands of mothers looked across the breakfast table and said, ‘Now maybe this will happen to my child someday.’ ”

In the end, there was not much the “old bulls” could do. Not wanting to essentially relitigate the civil rights movement before the American public, they used crime as a surrogate for the issue, suggesting that Marshall would not be tough enough on criminals or people who may have been rioting for political purposes. But they were speaking to a skillful lawyer who knew how to parry hostile questions. Plus, Johnson, the former “master of the Senate,” had the votes. Marshall came out of the committee by a vote of 11 to 5 in favor of sending his name to the Senate for consideration, where he was, as we know, successful.

Haygood tells this story with great energy and at times with humor and style. But one wishes for a more illuminating portrait of the man at the center of the proceedings — Marshall was even more interesting than Haygood reveals. And one jarring note that never fades is the use throughout the book of “Negro” and, on occasion, “colored.” While Marshall was said to prefer “Negro,” and the word fits with the era when he came of age in the law and transformed it, it feels forced and contrived in this work. The usage gives the book an old-fashioned feel, and not in a good way, as it may turn off the generations of people most in need of learning about Marshall’s amazing story and how he helped shape the world we live in today.

Showdown
Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America

By Wil Haygood

Knopf. 404 pp. $32.50