If there is a weed that grows through and underneath my work,” Wil Haygood once wrote, “I like to think it is a concern for the unknown stories, the lost stories.” That might seem like a surprising statement from the biographer of Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall—the subject of Haygood’s new book, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, which Knopf will publish in September. But all his biographies reveal hitherto unknown aspects of his subjects. In Showdown, Haygood uses Marshall’s contentious 1967 Senate confirmation hearing as the foreground in “a kind of tapestry of the civil rights movement,” spotlighting unfamiliar stories like his earlier battle, as chief counsel for the NAACP, against all-white primaries in Texas.
Haygood, seated in his publisher’s offices, says that “most of what has been written about Marshall involves his biggest case, Brown v. Board of Education, and his time on the Supreme Court.” He adds: “I wanted to do his life before the Supreme Court, but not in a traditional biography. I came up with the concept of telling his life story through the confirmation hearing: I would put him in Room 2228 and then go out of that room’s windows and tell you the stories of Marshall in Tennessee defending two Negroes accused of attempted murder in 1946, when he could have been killed himself, or in Florida investigating the 1951 bombing of Harry Moore, the first NAACP official in the nation to be murdered. I like stories that surprise the reader.”
Younger readers in particular may be surprised to learn that Marshall played such a crucial role in the civil rights struggle, since Martin Luther King Jr. looms so much larger in the public consciousness today. “I think that’s because so much of Marshall’s work was unattractive to day-to-day reporters,” Haygood says, himself a longtime newspaperman. “There he was in the courthouse again, filing an appeal, being knocked back, filing another appeal to the next higher court, and then waiting a year or two or three before it reached the Supreme Court. Journalists write about losses and victories, but in between there’s a lot of drudgery, a lot of work in the shadows; Thurgood Marshall lived in the shadows and in the headlines, and he handled both beautifully.”
The confirmation hearings, in Haygood’s coverage, show Marshall handling himself well under hostile questioning from powerful Southern senators. “It was tough for him,” the author says. “I think of it in the same way as the nation’s first African-American president having to keep his cool when a South Carolina legislator calls him a liar in public.”
And that’s not the only contemporary parallel Haygood sees: “So many of the issues in the book are still relevant today. We’re talking about unarmed black men being shot by the police; Marshall dealt with several of those cases. A black woman being found dead in a jail cell, the assault on voting rights... A friend of mine who teaches law said, ‘This book is not only history; it’s current affairs.’ ”
Even though Haygood, who was born in 1954, grew up during the stormiest days of the civil rights movement, he had little interest in current affairs as a boy. His engaging memoir, The Haygoods of Columbus, portrays a kid preoccupied by basketball and fishing, who took quite a while to discover his true calling. When he finally realized in his mid-20s that “the most joyful work I ever had was writing,” he fired off letters to newspaper editors around the country and landed a job at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “I went there as a copy editor, but I wrote stories on my days off, and I sent those clippings to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I went there as a full-time staff writer, and after a while started looking for a newspaper that would give a reporter space to write narrative stories. I was fortunate enough to get a job at the Boston Globe, a premier writers’ newspaper.”
A feature by Haygood about rafting down the Mississippi that appeared in the Globe’s Sunday magazine caught the attention of Peter Davison at Atlantic Monthly Press. Davidson hired Haygood to expand the article into his first book, Two on the River, which was published in 1986. “When Peter called me into his office in Boston and said ‘okay, what do you want to do next?’ I was charmed that somebody thought I had the ability to write a second book,” Haygood recalls. “I told him I was thinking about a biography of Adam Clayton Powell. He made me very nervous when he said, ‘Nobody, but nobody, is talking about Adam Clayton Powell anymore.’ But then he leaned into me and said, ‘Which is why you must do the book.’ That was a clue that I should do books I have a passion for, and that’s what I’ve attempted to do ever since.”
Writing King of the Cats (the Powell biography), In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., and Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, while also working full-time as a journalist, meant “a lot of getting up at four in the morning, I’ll tell you that,” Haygood says. He moved to the Washington Post in 2002, continuing to specialize as a journalist in “stories that maybe other people thought were too small.” No one was more surprised than him when one such story, about a White House butler, turned out to be very big indeed.
“When Obama was running for president, I thought that if he won I wanted to find an African-American who had worked in the White House since the days of segregation and tell that story,” Haygood says. “I had no idea I would find Eugene Allen, who had served eight presidents and never been written about—that’s another story in the shadows.” The profile ran on the Post’s front page three days after the 2008 election, and by that evening, Haygood had offers from eight Hollywood studios. “I still have to pinch myself,” he says. Less than five years later, The Butler opened with a star-studded cast to strong reviews and stellar ticket sales.
Not long after, Haygood left the Post to take a teaching position at his alma mater, Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. “I thought it would be a nice time to teach what I’ve learned as a biographer, a memoirist, and a journalist and still write my books,” he explains. “I’m mulling over what my next book should be, and I think it may have something to do with cinema—maybe not a biography but something entirely different, a little stranger, a little surprising. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I’m just talking it over with my editor.”
Showdown is Haygood’s third project with Peter Gethers at Knopf. “We are on a wonderful mutual wavelength,” Haygood says. “Peter doesn’t pressure me, but he challenges me. If one of my chapters isn’t quite there, he’ll tell me, ‘Forge on. Don’t become stymied on this chapter because I have some questions; we’ll come back to them later.’ He knows that eventually I’ll fix what needs to be fixed, and when he has that kind of confidence in me, it gives me greater confidence to report better and write better.”