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For High Court's First Black Justice, Road To Confirmation Wasn't Simple

ARUN RATH, HOST:

For almost 180 years, the U.S. Supreme Court was all white. That changed in 1967.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Historians will look this hour. A 58-year-old great-grandson of a slave is nominated by President Johnson to be a Supreme Court justice - Thurgood Marshall, the first of his race so honored.

RATH: And 48 years ago today, Thurgood Marshall's nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It was not a simple or an easy process. Wil Haygood chronicles the fight for that nomination in an upcoming book. I asked him to first remind us about the Thurgood Marshall the country knew in 1967 - an activist lawyer who had won landmark civil rights cases across the South.

WIL HAYGOOD: In 1944, there was Smith v. Allwright which really vanquished the all-white Democratic primary in Texas. In 1950, there was Sweatt v. Painter, which forced in the University of Texas to integrate its law school. In 1954 came the titanic, sweeping Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated the American public school system. And so by 1955, he was famous enough that his photograph appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

RATH: Now, being basically an activist of that sort during the '50s and '60s - that would have made him a pretty divisive figure, right?

HAYGOOD: Yes. Throughout the South, Thurgood Marshall was known as public enemy number one. It was so dangerous that the many black farmers often wielded shotguns to keep him safe in these small towns.

RATH: And then there came the nomination in 1967. Now, there's some history I had no idea about. I understand President Lyndon Johnson wasn't exactly thrilled about nominating Marshall for the Supreme Court.

HAYGOOD: First of all, Marshall was going to be facing the very senators who represented the states in the South that Marshall had changed. These were the giants of the American South, and they were all segregationist.

RATH: So how did LBJ's White House get the votes?

HAYGOOD: One of the great things about this saga is that it was really the sharp mastery of Lyndon Johnson to encourage 20 Southern senators not to vote. He persuaded them to do that by saying, look, in 1965, I passed a voting rights act, and so more blacks in your Southern communities are going to be going to the polls. I won't help you win next time if you harm me on this Marshall nomination. To convince 20 senators to not vote was extremely powerful, and he knew exactly how to do it.

RATH: You know, you've written a book about this moment in history. What's the legacy of this nomination? What happened there in 1967? How did it shape America?

HAYGOOD: Well, one very real way is that the year after Marshall's nomination, black law school applications skyrocketed. Right away, there were scores of young blacks who were now coming out of college who wanted to go to law school. And the Lyndon Johnson had said, now I want every black mother at her kitchen table to be able to look at her young daughter or young son and say, it is possible for you someday to make it on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

RATH: Wil Haygood is the author of "Showdown: Thurgood Marshall And The Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America." It comes out on September 15. Wil, thanks for coming in.

HAYGOOD: Thank you. Wonderful to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.