June 13, 1967 – Thurgood Marshall is Nominated to the Supreme Court & Book Review of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America” by Wil Haygood

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1933, he established a private legal practice in Baltimore.

He began his 25-year affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1934 by representing the organization in the law school discrimination suit. In 1936, Marshall became part of the national staff of the NAACP. In 1940, he established the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) as a separate legal entity, and served as its executive director.

In that position, he argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Smith v. Allwright, Shelley v. Kraemer, and Brown v. Board of Education, which held that racial segregation in public education is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as the United States Solicitor General.

On June 13, 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Tom C. Clark, saying that this was “the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place.”

At Marshall’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, as his eventual clerk Stephen L. Carter recalled:

To this day, the 1967 battle over Marshall’s confirmation to the Supreme Court remains one of the two most vicious in our history — the other being the 1916 fight over the nomination of Louis Brandeis, in which the opposition to the first Jewish justice included seven former heads of the American Bar Association, the president of Harvard and former U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham, who described Brandeis’s supporters as a ‘bunch of Hebrew uplifters.’ But because there was no television — cameras were not introduced until 1987 — we engage in collective forgetting.”

Arguments against confirming Marshall ranged from accusations that he was a “Communist sympathizer” to that he was “prejudiced against white people in the South” (per Mississippi Democrat James Eastland). But as Carter notes, the biggest objection was that, as a Black man, Marshall couldn’t possibly be smart enough. (While he graduated first in his class at Howard University School of Law, it was after all a Black school.) Never mind, observed Carter, his remarkable record as an advocate – Marshall won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. He was Black, so by definition he could not possibly be up to the job.

Nevertheless, Marshall was confirmed as an Associate Justice by a Senate vote of 69–11 on August 30, 1967. He was the 96th person to hold the position, and the first African American.

Wil Haygood, in his book Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America begins by taking takes us back to Marshall’s childhood to tell us what it was like for a young, smart, ambitious kid growing up in a world in which he couldn’t even use most public bathrooms or be admitted to many restaurants and hotels. But this never diminished his spirit and determination. On the contrary, it inspired him further not only to achieve, but to work for change for everyone else.

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This book uses the Senate confirmation hearings for Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination as scaffolding to structure his story; the author goes back and forth in time, basically telling in large part the history of black America from post-Reconstruction times onward. It is a nasty and brutal history which will often have you cringing (there are, for example, two blow-by-blow accounts of lynchings, though the accounts are quite germane), but will greatly enhance your understanding of the country as it is today.

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

At Marshall’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, as his eventual clerk Stephen L. Carter reported,

Marshall once described his legal philosophy as this: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

Marshall served on the Court for 24 years, compiling a liberal record that included strong support for Constitutional protection of individual rights, especially the rights of criminal suspects. His most frequent ally on the Court (the pair rarely voted at odds) was Justice William Brennan, who consistently joined him in supporting abortion rights and opposing the death penalty. Brennan and Marshall concluded in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was, in all circumstances, unconstitutional, and never accepted the legitimacy of Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled four years later that the death penalty was constitutional in some circumstances. Thereafter, Brennan or Marshall dissented from every denial of certiorari in a capital case and from every decision upholding a sentence of death.

Justice William Brennan

Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 due to declining health. President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Marshall; Bush couldn’t have found someone more diametrically opposed to Marshall in jurisprudence or integrity.

Evaluation: If you only read about the life of one trailblazing hero, I recommend reading about Thurgood Marshall. His unparalleled bravery in spite of constant threats against his life, his unflagging dedication to others, and his unfailing good humor and optimism in the face of unrelenting efforts by whites to keep him down, is utterly amazing and inspirational.

I’ve seen some reviews opine that Devil in the Grove, also about Marshall, is superior to this book. I found it excellent as well, but the fact is, when you’re writing about a true giant of a man like Marshall, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rating: 4.5/5

Hardcover published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Audiobook published unabridged on 12 CDs (14 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014

A Few Notes on the Audio Production: The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, is nothing short of sensational. He has a couple of mispronunciations (e.g., Estes Kefauver), but I can’t really complain because his overall performance is so outstanding.

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