It’s not every day that you get to rub shoulders with members of Hollywood's elite like Oprah Winfrey. Then again, it’s not every day that you get taken hostage by Somalian Rebels while being a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. But to author Wil Haygood, these accounts were just another day on the job. For more than 30 years, Haygood, a semi-self-taught journalist, has chronicled the stories of some pretty notable figures and events including Nelson Mandela, the L.A. Riots, Hurricane Katrina and the Somalian Civil War.
In 2013, he found his name on the big screen with the movie adaptation from his book, The Butler: A Witness To History, a fleshed-out adaptation of his Washington Post article chronicling the life of Eugene Allen. Haygood has authored several biographies through the years; his latest, Showdown, released last fall, topples the subject of the monumental Supreme Court nomination of Thurgood Marshall. It tells the story of the legendary lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who many, including Haygood, feel is a “lost figure in history.” He was the lawyer who brought down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools, then went on to be appointed the first African-American Justice on the Supreme Court.
We caught up with Haygood to discuss his new book, his writing inspirations, and the ongoing discussion of race in America today.
You’ve written about some pretty significant historical figures. What is it about people that drives you to write about them?
I’ve written about French, Germans, Asians, southern whites, blacks in America, and the ongoing racial quagmire. I would call myself both a journalist and cultural historian. As a trained journalist, you’re always looking for a story that has an edge, that has drama. With that you have meat on the bones. Telling a story about the great, legendary Thurgood Marshall, there was a lot there to work with. There’s a lot in the book about Houston, Texas. Houstonians were involved in one of the seminal civil rights victories for Thurgood Marshall, in the landmark Supreme Court case, Smith v. Allwright. Thurgood Marshall came to Houston to dismantle the all-white democratic primary for voters. It was a big part of his life because he was nominated to the Supreme Court by a Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Did you always know you wanted to write a book about Marshall?
I had long found him to be a very fascinating figure. But I did not see a Wil Haygood way, sort of a non-linear intriguing way, into the story—I just didn’t. I did not want to tell a traditional biographical saga. I wanted a unique angle. I came across a little story about Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation hearings, which lasted five days and stretched over 12 days. Before him, every Supreme Court nominee’s hearing had lasted less than six hours. Right then and there, I saw drama—great drama!
What are some of the facts or circumstances that are least well known, or underappreciated about Marshall, or about the civil rights movement at that time?
I think that there hasn’t been enough written about the lawyers, who Marshall had to go up against in these southern states. These were the lawyers that were trained at the best law schools in the south or up north. This cadre of lawyers were considered the elite. They came from well-heeled families. Marshall went up against them often, and won often. I think people don’t realize that in order to keep fighting these cases and win these cases, by winning the appeals and getting them to the Supreme Court, that you really have to have a stunning legal mind. Marshall’s march was different than say Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s march was spiritual, it was from the heart. Thurgood Marshall went after the nation through its own U.S. Constitution. That was a trickier war to win—it really was.
Are there any historical figures you wish you could have interviewed before they had passed away?
Actually, no. When I started my research on Sammy Davis, Jr., he was dead. When I started my book on Thurgood Marshall he was dead… Sugar Ray Robinson—dead. That means I have to go around and find people who knew these people—which is fun to do. It often adds whole other layers to the storytelling.
Even though you didn’t need Marshall to tell his story, what would you ask him today?
I would ask him where did he get the courage to keep going into the deep south after his life had been threatened so many times. I think it’s a remarkable part of his story. He had constant death threats, and yet he had to be on top of his game as a lawyer, because when he was going around filing these federal lawsuits on behalf of blacks, he would be opposed by the best legal minds in Texas, Florida, Georgia or Mississippi. He had to sometimes find a safe place to sleep at night, in a very stressful environment, and then the next morning, walk into that court house and be at the very top of his game, year in and year out. That I find astonishing.
Has Hollywood come knocking for this story?
The movie rights have been sold to Pam Williams Productions. [Pam] was one of the executive producers of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It just happened in the past month. I’m very excited about that. (Haygood has been named associate producer for the future Showdown movie).
A lot of your writing is about looking back. What advice would you have for the younger generation, moving forward?
I think everybody knows that America is going through a tough moment right now. We have the Black Lives Matter movement, you have the shootings of unarmed African-Americans, you have the Bland case right there in Texas. I think these are moments where we need to do some soul searching. We’re all in this together. I think the country has made great strides of course, but there’s work to be done… This is a great time to be a citizen of this nation–of this world. The fact that we happen to be talking about these issues is good–nothing's buried underground. Everything now is out in the open. There are great opportunities for people to express their craft. Look at who’s in the White House, I mean look at that story. If that can’t inspire you… No matter how cold the winds sometime seem, there are too many examples of advancement and enlightenment not to be encouraged.
What do you hope people attending your talks come away with?
That there is a big art to storytelling. I like to think the stories I tell are the stories about America. How we got from there to here. They are quintessential stories about this nation that involve race, joy, pain, beauty, uplift and patriotism. In those moments, there is a magic that makes us all step back and go "wow."
Feb 13. 2. Free with ticket; seating is limited. Texas Southern University, Sawyer Auditorium. 3100 Cleburne St. 832-393-1652. houstonlibrary.org