In anticipation of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, former Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood had an idea: find a black man who worked in the White House during segregation. He discovered Eugene Allen, a butler who served eight presidents throughout a time of tumultuous race relations. Allen’s story first became a newspaper article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” and then a movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and then a book by Haygood, The Butler: A Witness to History.
Haygood’s new book, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America, tells the story of the country’s first African American justice. Marshall was already a prominent civil rights leader by the time of his appointment in 1967, having won the crucial Brown v. Board of Education case, and the book uses his confirmation hearings to weave together the arc of his career and the efforts of Southern senators who attempted to thwart his ascent.
Marshall is the newest set of eyes through which Haygood tells the civil rights story. He has also written the corresponding and at times overlapping narratives of Sammy Davis, Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and the powerful Democratic congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. His first book, The Haygoods of Columbus: A Love Story, provides personal perspective through a family memoir, detailing Haygood’s early life in the pre-civil rights era on Mount Vernon Avenue on the city’s Near East Side.
He spoke with (614) Magazine two years ago when Lee Daniels’ The Butler played in theaters, and Haygood continues that conversation here, tracing a path from Marshall’s time as a young NAACP lawyer through the turbulence and triumph of today’s racial struggles.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while you were completing this project? That Thurgood Marshall was extraordinarily brave. … Marshall’s job was the entire country, from San Francisco to Mississippi to Chicago, and he was especially threatened—life and death situations—when he was traveling throughout the South in the ’40s and the ’50s. And many people, lawyers, if they would have been threatened once, that would have been more than enough to get them to stay out of the South. But Marshall kept going back and back and back, finding these legal cases, and it took just a huge amount of courage and faith in the American legal system.
These were often cases where there was [an] obvious miscarriage of justice, which spawned some type of riotous situation, and so there would be a riot in the towns. Blacks would be charged with starting the riot, and they would be arrested in large numbers, old and young. And they would need a lawyer to help them, and they would call in Thurgood Marshall. It happened once in Columbia, Tennessee, where there was a riot, and they would call in Marshall to help them fight their case. And after this particular court case where Marshall was able to get many of them off—although not all—he was arrested by local sheriff’s deputies and told that he had been driving under the influence when he clearly had not been. But he was driven into some dark woods, and some lawyer friends in another car saw him, and they followed that car into the woods. And the sheriff’s deputies realized they were being followed, and they turned around and took Marshall on into town. Marshall himself later said that he knew if his friends hadn’t followed him that he thought he would have been killed.
What led you to pick Marshall’s nomination as the topic for your next book? Well, if you were born in 1954 as I was, it’s always in the back of your mind that it was a seminal year in American history with the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. It changed the law in this country as far as black access to education, black people’s access to higher education and schools. And it also created the mindset that separate was not equal. And so I was born right on that fault line, and as a writer you’re movin’ around history and you’re tellin’ these big, epic, historical stories, and I always started to think about, “How can I find a way into 1954 and into that Brown story?” which had an impact on my own life. And nobody had ever unraveled Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation hearings, and I knew nothing about them.
What did you take away from the project as it relates to some of the themes that you’ve covered in your other work? That this country has a great capacity for change. Now, that change has not come without tears and bloodshed, as we all know, but it has happened. For a writer like me who likes to tell these big, epical stories from the shadows, you might say, of American history, it’s been a great narrative challenge. You could say that Thurgood Marshall’s hearings were in the shadows because they haven’t previously been covered in any of the books that have been written about him. And up till the end of his hearings, he had been grilled, he had been questioned, for five straight days, which was the longest any Supreme Court nominee had ever been questioned. Usually those hearings before Marshall would end after the first day, and sometimes after four hours. But Marshall’s hearings—up against the real fact that he was the first African American nominated—his hearings stretched on for five days.
A lot of your books focus on people who were involved with the civil rights movement. Did you choose these subjects as a way to tell different pieces of that larger story? I don’t wanna put myself in any kind of a box because I think that the books are more versatile than that. I think that they talk about American history and African American history within that picture frame, and when you’re talking about African American history, you’re often talking about struggle. You’re talking about miracles, voting rights, you’re talking about uplift, and you’re always talking about the White House because that’s where the laws sort of flow in this nation of ours. And so, yes, there is something certainly to be said [about] the fact that my books are set in these pre-civil rights years because I think that gives [an] edgy, beautiful window onto how America has gotten to where it’s gotten. I’m very touched with the fact that on the day that President Johnson summoned Thurgood Marshall and his White House aides to the White House to nominate Marshall … I’m very touched that one of the butlers in the White House that day was Eugene Allen. And it gives me chills just to think of that, that Thurgood Marshall was fighting for Mr. Allen’s rights all his life, Thurgood Marshall was. And here on the cusp of the nation’s first African American president, I had an idea to go find a butler, and I found Mr. Allen. There’s some kind of symmetry about all of that that really touches me deeply.
You’ve also had a firsthand view of racial inequality in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How do you balance all the gains that the civil rights movement has made with the harsh everyday reality for many black citizens, as was readily apparent after Katrina? I think that this nation knows that, from the statistics, that a black child statistically has a higher chance of winding up in jail than a white child at birth, and that’s something that we have to deal with, and it’s something that’s sad. I think that poor people are penalized for various things in this country that others are not. I think the effort now to commute the wickedly long drug sentences that grew out of the ’90s—and I think that that’s a bipartisan effort—[is] long overdue, because too many of those people locked up in this country are black or brown, and I think it’s very apparent. These are issues that Marshall his whole life talked about as well. So I think that when the leaders of the country start to talk about inequality, and the statistics that don’t lie, and about race, then we have a chance to be as great as we aspire to be. But when we try to sweep those problems under the rug, and then we get the situations like in Ferguson. We get unrest, we get anger, we get bloodshed. But when we rise to be as insightful as we must be, and then we have a wonderful chance to show the world, like we showed the world in 2008, that we can judge a man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.
You mentioned Ferguson. Two years ago when you spoke with (614), you discussed the killing of Trayvon Martin and the lack of a conversation about truth and reconciliation. Martin’s killing spawned Black Lives Matter, which now has other names attached to it, like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice and John Crawford here in Ohio. Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement is an important part of starting that conversation? Yes. I think Black Lives Matter is long overdue. I think that in the ’60s you had politicians white and black who were out in the forefront of social justice, and I think that that coalition has been frayed, and you have very few white male politicians who are in the mold of Robert Kennedy, who are out there on the front lines, who are talkin’ about social justice day in and day out. And I think these video examples of blacks being shot by law enforcement, I think it’s been [an] unnerving wakeup call in this country. I mean, it’s right there for you to see. It’s no urban myth. It’s right there on the videotape. And these are mothers and fathers who no longer have their child or their adult son or daughter, and it’s heartbreaking. And it has to be addressed. It just has to be. Now that’s not to say that the country hasn’t made great strides because we certainly have. This is not the 1960s, 1950s, but it’s still very uneasy for people in this country to talk about race.
Are these moments of tragedy necessary to bring the persistence of institutional racism to light? It does seem like they move the cause and the conversation forward, but that’s a pretty awful price to pay for progress. These times of real pain seem to capture the attention of people. It shouldn’t take that, but it does. The hurricane that I covered in New Orleans 10 years ago, I saw up close people who were crying because the government couldn’t get help to them. And I don’t think anyone would have thought that situation would have happened to a group of high-income people. But those people who were stuck in New Orleans, they were mostly black and poor. Not all, but mostly. And I think it’s caused the city of New Orleans to be more sensitive and to be more caring, and I think it really caused them to look at the school system, to look at the infrastructure, to look at jobs—just a whole plethora of things that you would have hoped would have been high on everybody’s list earlier. But it took that tragedy to adopt a whole lot of measures to make life more palatable for poor people there.
What do you think that Thurgood Marshall would say about our current situation if he were here today? If Thurgood Marshall were here today I think he would be very inspired to see old and young, black and white, forming these coalitions for housing access, for voting rights. I think he would be absolutely thrilled because he knew in 1954 when he won his big Brown case in front of the Supreme Court, he knew that great harmony in the school system was not going to come overnight, but he had patience and he was equipped knowing that things in society take often longer than we want them to. He would be delighted at so much of the forward movement that he would witness, but he would also say, “Can we move a little faster, people?”
Wil Haygood is now the Wiepking Visiting Distinguished Professor at Miami University in Oxford. His book will be available September 15 (knopfdoubleday.com), and he will visit Columbus for An Evening with Wil Haygood on September 29 at the Lincoln Theatre. For more info, visit capa.com.