Wil Haygood to give talk on latest book about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Wil Haygood

Wil Haygood

by Jason Barone, College of Arts and Science

Miami University Karl and Helen Wiepking Visiting Distinguished Professor Wil Haygood will deliver a special presentation about his new book, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5, in the Wilks Theater, Armstrong Student Center.

Haygood is a former Washington Post reporter and author of the story that inspired the film “The Butler.” His newest book was released this month.  Miami’s office of the provost, College of Arts and Science, and department of media, journalism & film are sponsoring the event. A book signing is scheduled for 5 p.m.

“It’s just a love of telling stories that haven’t been told before that drives me to these topics,” Haygood said to Miami journalism students this past spring. “Thurgood Marshall [the first African-American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court] worked many years of his life traveling the country remaking the landscape of laws that were already on the books against blacks, and he proved through lawsuits that the Constitution says that you cannot forbid a black person from voting in, say, South Carolina or Dallas, Texas. Marshall won these great cases before the Supreme Court.”

When asked this month by Columbus’ (614) Magazine why he chose Marshall as the subject of his book, Haywood explained, “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.”

Haygood’s path to his subject

Book coverDiscovering that very little had been revealed about Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation hearings, Haygood began working on his book in 2010. He was awarded fellowships for his research from both the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2011 and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2012. However, he always knew he wasn’t going to tackle his subject like a traditional, chronological biography.

“The book begins in 1967, when President Johnson had nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court,” Haygood told students. “The Southern U.S. senators battled during the confirmation hearings to keep him off the court, and Northern and Western senators wanted him to integrate in course. My book is a nonlinear way through the door to tell Marshall’s story.”

Last spring, Haygood treated a journalism class to an excerpt of his book when it was still in book galley form from his publisher. He explained that he’d written the opening scene after successfully tracking down a White House aide who was in the Oval Office on that historical day when President Johnson made his announcement.

“The President has called several people together to tell them that he’s getting ready to make his announcement about nominating a black person to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Haygood said, setting up the scene. “Up to that time, it had always been all white men, and Johnson wanted to break that mold during his tenure in the White House.”

Strong roots in investigative journalism

Haygood grew up in Columbus and graduated from Miami in 1976 with a degree in urban planning. For nearly three decades he was a journalist, serving as a national and foreign correspondent at the Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and then at the Washington Post.

His reporting has taken him all over the world, including France, Germany, India, South Africa, where he witnessed Nelson Mandela’s liberation from prison, and Somalia, where he was kidnapped and ransomed by rebels. While at the Washington Post, Haygood wrote his 2008 article, "A Butler Well Served by This Election," which became the basis for the award-winning motion picture “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

Since the success of that film, Haygood said he is finding it much easier to get access to people when he’s writing a story.

“While working on the Thurgood Marshall book, I would call somebody for an interview and they would say, ‘Aren’t you that guy who wrote The Butler?’” he recalled. “I would say, ‘Yes, so does that mean that I’m going to get to interview you sooner rather than later?’”

“Wil Haygood has brought us an elegant, fascinating and important tale, rendered with relentless originality and the author’s superb gift of portraiture,” historian Michael Beschloss said in endorsing the book. “Showdown reveals the essence of the great Thurgood Marshall, as well as the historical forces and often surprising backstage mechanics that enabled him to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.”

In addition to Showdown, Haygood is also the author of Two on the River, King of the Cats: the Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a New York Times Notable Book), The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir (winner of the Great Lakes Book Award), In Black and White: the Life of Sammy Davis Jr. (winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and the Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association), Sweet Thunder: the Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (finalist for the first ever PEN-ESPN Literary Sports Writing Award), and The Butler: A Witness to History, which has been translated into a dozen languages.

These days, as the Wiepking Visiting Distinguished Professor in the department of media, journalism & film, Haygood says he is content to teach journalism at Miami while continuing his writing projects.

“I was really pleased when Miami reached out to me,” he said. “I had all these experiences as a journalist, and I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe I can interact with some students, and maybe they’ll learn something here and there,’ so that is why I’m here.”