Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America

Apr 14, 2016

Thurgood Marshall is a familiar name to most, and his work as a Supreme Court Justice is known to many. But his enormous success as an attorney fighting for civil rights is not as prominent in our minds. Author Wil Haygood says that part of his life and legacy laid the groundwork for his Supreme court appointment. 

"Many people don't know what he did in the '30s, '40's and 50's. I think his narrative, his story, has somewhat gotten lost among the other Titanic figures of the Civil Rights Movement," says Haygood. "He took 33 cases before the United States Supreme Court and won 29 of them. That is an astonishing record. Voting rights cases, housing rights cases, the epic 1954 Brown v the Board of Education case, which desegregated the American public school system. He was the go-to lawyer in the mid-20th century. He had no equal."

During this hour of River to River, Katherine Perkins talks with Haygood about Haygood's book "Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America." 

Marshall was nominated for a seat on the nation's highest court after some political maneuvering by Lyndon B. Johnson. There was no vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court until President Johnson convinced Justice Tom Clark, who served from 1949-1967, to step down. 

Marshall's hearings lasted longer than any other justice previously nominated to the court. There were five days of hearing stretched over 13 days due to a group of southern Democrats set on blocking the nomination. 

"The southerners were hell bent on tearing down Marshall's reputation. Ironically, this is so odd. He had won 29 of 33 cases before the Supreme Court, and they attacked his knowledge of the Constitution," says Haygood. "They were so vigilant on trying to knock him down that that's the arena they crawled into. It was an error on their part because Thurgood Marshall knew the Constitution front and back."

Correction: An earlier version of this post said a group of Republican senators were set on blocking Marshall's nomination. While Senator Strom Thurmond changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1964, the other three southern Senators serving on the Judiciary Committee in 1967 who tried to block the nomination were Democrats.