At the State Bar of Texas’ 2019 Annual Meeting, host Laurence Colletti sits down with award winning American author Wil Haygood to hear about everything going on in his life and his writing. They take a journey down memory lane through the books he wrote, but dive deepest into Showdown, a book about famed lawyer and Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall and his impact on America. Wil gives an in depth look at key parts of his book, why he chose it for his presentation, and shares anecdotes about the good fortune he’s received since writing it.
Wil Haygood is the broadway distinguished scholar-in-residence in the department of media, journalism & film at Miami University.
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State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2019: Bench Bar Breakfast with Wil Haygood
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Laurence Colletti: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast recorded from the Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This is Laurence Colletti and I am the host for today’s show, which is being sponsored by LawPay, trusted by more than 35,000 law firms to accept legal payments online. It’s the only payment solution offered as a member benefit by the State Bar of Texas.
Joining me now it’s my special privilege to welcome Mr. Wil Haygood, he’s an award-winning author and reporter. Welcome to the show, Sir.
Wil Haygood: Thank you. Good to be here.
Laurence Colletti: Excellent, excellent. Well, I enjoyed your presentation. I don’t often get to attend them before an interview just the way everything works in our production schedule, but I really enjoyed yours and you presented at the Bench Bar Breakfast Presentation. But before we get into that, I want to learn a little bit more about you, tell us about your work and tell us more about yourself.
Wil Haygood: Well, I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which is where I teach now in the Department of Film, Media & Journalism in college, major in City Planning, minored in English Literature and then started a career in journalism. I worked on newspapers in West Virginia, in Pennsylvania, and then I went to The Boston Globe where I became a foreign correspondent.
It was also at The Boston Globe where I started writing books and then spent 12 years at the Washington Post and so now, it’s mostly teaching and writing books.
Laurence Colletti: Well that’s a — that’s a great jumping-off point for what I’m about to ask you. So, you’re an author, you’ve written many books, you’ve written ‘Tigerland, Showdown, In Black and White’, which is about Sammy Davis Jr.
Wil Haygood: Yeah.
Laurence Colletti: And you’ve written ‘Sweet Thunder’ and that was about a boxer and what was the boxer’s name?
Wil Haygood: Sugar Ray Robinson.
Laurence Colletti: Sugar Ray, a little before my time but that’s wonderful. And then you wrote, I think this is sort of an autobiography about your family ‘The Haygoods of Columbus’?
Wil Haygood: Yes, yes, it was about growing up in this Midwestern city in the 1960s, how this sort of magical music loving street Mount Vernon Avenue changed and morph over time. So it really was a book about a city in the middle of the middle of America.
Laurence Colletti: The middle of the middle of America?
Wil Haygood: Yep, yep.
Laurence Colletti: And then you also wrote ‘King of the Cats’, so that’s the one I had the least amount of information.
Wil Haygood: Yeah.
Laurence Colletti: And what was ‘King of the Cats’ about?
Wil Haygood: Yeah, Adam Clayton Powell was an architect of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty legislation. That book came out in 1993, but I started doing research for it in the late 80s, which was when I made my first trip to Austin, Texas to the LBJ Library, because I had to research the political relationship between Adam Clayton Powell and Lyndon Johnson.
So that’s what that book was about.
Laurence Colletti: Okay, and that gets us to ‘The Butler: A Witness to History’, which is probably arguably the one that you’re most well-known for. And so this eventually got turned into a movie by Oprah in 2013 called The Butler. And so I just, I found it interesting with all of this — all these books, you had a wealth of knowledge you pulled upon, a lot of biographies you picked, you picked the ‘Showdown’ to present today at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting.
So what was the reasoning behind that? Walk me through it.
Wil Haygood: Well, because ‘Showdown’ is about Thurgood Marshall and his Supreme Court nomination that changed America. In 1967, he became the first African-American nominated to the Supreme Court, and he was nominated by Texas’ own Lyndon Johnson, who was the President at the time.
So I really think that it still stands is the most intimate close relationship between a white President and a Black man up to that time down through history. I just couldn’t find any other relationship that had been as meaningful and as close as those to me and Thurgood Marshall had met Lyndon Johnson back in the 1930s, here in Texas.
And you know, they became friends through the years and they both had a big epic love for the country, for where the country needed to go and how they each in their own way could help the country to get there.
Laurence Colletti: And that explains a little bit of the affection you have for the great state of Texas.
Wil Haygood: Yeah, yeah and goodness, one looks at Lyndon Johnson and all of his genius in his willpower was poured into passing three astonishing laws in this country, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the 1965 Civil Rights Bill and the 1968 Housing Bill. And so, he was responsible for this nation really growing out of the dark ages and he dependent on the legal roadmap that Thurgood Marshall as a NAACP lawyer had laid down 30 years prior to those 1960s era bills.
Laurence Colletti: There was a special connection between your mother and Justice Marshall that you shared on stage and I was wondering if you could re-share that with our audience as well.
Wil Haygood: Yeah, my mother was born and raised in that civil rights soaked City of Selma, Alabama and her parents like so many Black parents bought her North on the train and she became pregnant in 1954 and that was exactly the same year when Thurgood Marshall was fighting to desegregate the public schools in this country.
And so nine months later in September 1954, my mother has twin children and one of the reasons I wrote this book, I spent five years on this book because it was such a moment, it had to be such a moment for her when the 1954 Supreme Court Brown desegregation of the public schools ruling came out.
She can now look over at her two newborns and she could say there’s a new day in America right now, and I’m one of those twins who was in the bassinet in 1954, me and my twin sister were born that year. And so that must have lifted my mother into heights that she never knew could be possible that her kids would be afforded the same opportunities to go to good public schools as White children.
Laurence Colletti: It seemed that there was a little bit of divine intervention that went into your authorship of this book, and you expressed a little bit of that on stage, you said, you started digging into it and these unexpected revelations just came out of the woodwork and then it was very clear that she needed to write about the topic.
And so, share with us a little bit of those anecdotes and some of the – I guess the good fortunes that you found along the way.
Wil Haygood: Yeah there are two things that stand out. One is that there was no Supreme Court they can see in 1967 and Lyndon Johnson had to convince in a very sly way his Texas friend, who was Associate Justice Tom Clark, Lyndon Johnson had to convince him to step down from the court, and he did that because he told him he wanted to appoint Tom Clark’s son Ramsey Clark as his Attorney General and he wouldn’t do that with Tom Clark still on the bench, because it would just create new stories, favoritism, etc.
And so, I was able to track down a member of Tom Clark’s family who told me that story. It’s just a wonderful story of how Lyndon Johnson used his smarts to create an opening on the Supreme Court to integrate the previously all-white Supreme Court.
And the second thing which stands out to me is that in 2008, I tracked down Eugene Allen, who had been a White House Butler and that was the story that later got turned into a movie. Well, what is very amazing to me, kind of magical is that, on the day that Thurgood Marshall was summoned to the White House to meet with the President, he was served cookies and tea by one of the White House Butlers.
The butler who served him those cookies and tea was none other than Eugene Allen, and so you had one man Mr. Allen who had been harmed and hurt that the law did not rise to give him full equal rights.
And then you had another man Thurgood Marshall sitting down near him, who had worked his whole life to bring those very rights to Mr. Allen, and that to me is shows the mighty strength of the nation when it is at its best.
Laurence Colletti: So you said this was the book that President, the late President Lyndon Johnson never got a chance to write, and so you picked up the mantle and you were telling the story of the nomination process for Justice Marshall, and initially there was definitely some pushback.
And so obviously, there were some people that were concerned back in those days and one of them was Senator John McClellan, and so in response to that, there was a letter that was sent. I found this to be just — probably the best part of your speech that it’s hard not to be drawn into it, but a certain young woman wrote a letter to Senator John McClellan and this became an integral part of your book. So please tell us a story of how that all came to be.
Wil Haygood: Yes, I wanted to go look at the archives of Senator John McClellan and they were at a small Baptist College in Arkansas, and nobody had ever really looked in depth at his papers. They had just recently opened, just recently been made available to the public, and I’m looking through thousands and thousands of pages of letters, and bills that he helped pass and hearings, but I’m out there to do my best to research the link between Senator McClellan and Thurgood Marshall’s nomination.
And always when somebody has nominated to the Supreme Court, there are letters from all around the country pro and con, and I came across this letter from one that Senator John McClellan’s area constituents, from one of his people who lived in his district. And they wrote him a letter that where the person said to the senator that he was going to be on the wrong side of history; that Marshall had wonderful qualifications and that the senator who was a known segregationist was not doing right in his effort to stop Marshall from making it on to the Supreme Court.
And nobody knew about this letter and when I came across this letter written by this lady named Barbara Ross, I was stunned, I couldn’t speak almost, because it really showed me why the literary gods had chosen me to write this letter in a way that letter became the metaphor you might say of the book.
Somebody who was disrespected, her letter wasn’t taken seriously, and yet Wil Haygood, this writer who comes along all these years later and out of millions and millions of pieces of paper, I find this letter. And so —
Laurence Colletti: Some more of that good fortune?
Wil Haygood: Yeah that was — yes, that was just good fortune, and I was able to — through a series of circumstances to track Ms. Ross down, Barbara Ross down to tell her that I had found this letter, that she never got a response to and I told her my letter was going to be in her book and she practically cried on the telephone.
She is a retired schoolteacher, she was very young, only 19 years old when she wrote that letter, which is why she wrote it and still had very vivid memories of the day she wrote the letter. Her father didn’t want her to write the letter, but she wrote it and she never got a response, but now the letter is in a book, so that’s really beyond sweet.
Laurence Colletti: So decades later, she, after writing this letter never gets a response, it ends up in a book. She gets a phone call from you, but there’s one other historic figure that read this letter.
Wil Haygood: Yes, she had put at the end of her letter, she said Senator McClellan, someday, someday, there will be a Negro President, Sincerely Yours Barbara Ross. And that’s the part of the letter when I was reading it at the library that stunned me. I mean she had predicted that this nation would have an African-American President in lo and behold all these years later we did.
And so, a Federal judge in Chicago who knows the president was at one of my events, and heard my letter and asked me to make a copy of it because he was going over to the White House, and I didn’t think anything else of it or that I would ever hear from him again.
And this Judge, out of Chicago, called me a short while later and said, I want to tell you something. He said, there was a dinner at the White House two nights ago and I was there, and I gave the President your Barbara Ross letter that you found in Arkansas and there were about 17-20 people around his dinner table, and first he read the letter in silence and he was so touched by it, that he asked for everybody’s attention and he read the letter aloud, and that has to be one of the most moving things that I as a writer have ever heard about my own work.
Laurence Colletti: Read by President Obama?
Wil Haygood: Read by President Obama, yes.
Laurence Colletti: That’s fantastic. So just when I thought I couldn’t get any better, you went into it, and this is my last question for you, I know you got to get going but at the very end of your presentation you read out the yeas and the nays.
Wil Haygood: Yes.
Laurence Colletti: So I’d be in addition to great theater very well, very well presented, I just — I was listening to that and you hear some of these historic figures to read about in history and some of the answers actually surprised me, which way I —
Wil Haygood: Yeah.
Laurence Colletti: What was the thought behind that? That was in your book?
Wil Haygood: Yep.
Laurence Colletti: And then you shared it on stage, but what was the thought process about including that in the book and also showing on stage?
Wil Haygood: Yeah, I wanted to show how in a very hard time, in this nation’s history, how Democrats and Republicans came together, because it took members from both parties to get Thurgood Marshall on to the Supreme Court. And so it shows really who was on the right side of history and then is the most I think telling moment in this book when I can visualize that for people just what the stakes were and who rose up and did the right thing, because Thurgood Marshall changed the country not only for Blacks, not only for poor people, but for White people, for everybody.
He changed the direction of the country. He saved the soul of the country. I mean and there is no doubt about that. We would be a very different nation, we are not for the interactions between President Lyndon Johnson and Thurgood Marshall. Both of those men made each other much better man.
Laurence Colletti: Well, we’ve reached the end of our program. I know you got to go, but Mr. Haygood, I want to thank you so much for sharing a piece of our nation’s history with us.
Wil Haygood: It was wonderful to be here and thank you very much.
Laurence Colletti: But I’d also be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give a little shout out from our listeners. If they want to follow up and learn more about some of the works that you do, your authorship, your book, about Thurgood Marshall, how can they find you?
Wil Haygood: Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, that’s where I teach and I have a whole webpage there. And then they can look at that webpage and there is information there how to communicate with me.
Laurence Colletti: Excellent. Excellent. Well, that’s all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas podcast, brought to you by LawPay. Thank you once again LawPay.
Also thank you to our listeners for tuning in.
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I’m Laurence Colletti, until next time, thank you for listening.
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