Monday, February 15, 2016

Showdown- Marshall vs. Scalia?

Sometimes history collides with current events in ways that make us think that we are experiencing  "Deja Vu."  Two events happened in Texas on Saturday that make me wonder if history is about to repeat itself.

The author of the "The Butler", Wil Haygood was in Houston on Saturday promoting his new book, "Showdown" about the appointment by LBJ of civil rights leader, Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Haygood's premise is that the nomination of Marshall to the highest court profoundly changed the racial politics of our nation.  He tells the story using the framework of the dramatic and contentious five-day Senate hearing on the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice.

Wil Haygood and Nick Cimino 2/13/2016, Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas
As my wife and I walked off the Texas Southern Campus, the news alerts appeared on our phones that Justice Antonin Scalia had died at a hunting ranch near Marfa, Texas.  Republican presidential candidates began making statements about blocking the nomination of Scalia's replacement. The president said on Saturday that he will nominate a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, ignoring the protests from Republicans. The dynamics of the Supreme Court will be fundamentally changed by the death of Scalia.  To learn of Scalia's death after hearing stories about the Thurgood Marshall nomination was uncanny.  Another "showdown" is about to happen in the Senate.  If there is a heaven for esteemed jurists, perhaps another debate is about to begin.

I have to say that I was riveted by the humor and historical insight of Wil Haygood's lecture on Saturday.  I bought a copy of the "Showdown" book in hopes of getting his autograph.  The lecture was held in the Sawyer Auditorium of Texas Southern University which is also the site of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.  The introductory speakers included the new Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, Congressman Al Green and Dannye R. Holley, Dean of the Marshall Law School.  I was impressed by the Dean's introduction of Mayor Turner that described him as "super qualified" and "super prepared."  Among his many qualifications, Mayor Turner graduated  Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Houston.  This contrasted humorously with Haygood's self described qualifications as graduating "magna cum lucky" in urban planning from Miami University in Ohio.

In the spirit of the past being prologue, Haygood shared several anecdotes from the writing and the filming of the "The Butler."   One of the luckiest moments in Haygood's life was when he decided to write a newspaper article about Eugene Allen, the butler who served in the White House during the terms of eight presidents.  Haygood wanted to explore this unique moment in American history by profiling a person who was raised in an era when segregation was so ingrained into American life, that the thought of a black president was incomprehensible. He was covering the Obama campaign as a reporter for the Washington Post and he saw the tide turning toward election of the first African American president.  Haygood drew inspiration from the quote of Dr. Martin Luther King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

One of the anecdotes about the research and writing of Showdown that I found particularly inspiring as a genealogist, was about the discovery of a very prescient letter in an Arkansas archive.  Haygood stated that sometimes in the writing process "you just have to go there" to find the hidden research gems.  Texarkana resident, Barbara Ross, wrote a letter to Sen. John McClellan, after listening to the racist tone of the Senate hearing on the radio. Haygood read the words that Ms. Ross wrote with  her new typewriter in 1967: "If he doesn't get the nomination, there will be others who seek after the same opportunity when it is there. There will be hundreds, Senator, and you can't fight them all…One of these days, the President of the United States will be a Negro."

Image from the dust jacket of "Showdown" by Wil Haygood.

The new book about the Marshall appointment is mandatory reading towards achieving a well-informed citizenry especially given current events with the passing of Justice Scalia.  The efforts of southern senators to block the Marshall nomination in 1967 are about to be replayed in the Senate in the coming weeks.  The Washington Post has described Justice Scalia as a "brilliant legal mind who snubbed civil rights at nearly every turn."  Perhaps the prophetic words of MLK are about to resonate once more.

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