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A conversation with Wil Haygood

A conversation with Wil Haygood

Photo by Julia Ewan/The Washington Post. Used with permission.

An acclaimed author shares his thoughts on race in America, freedom of the press, and seeing his work turned into a Hollywood film

By Maura Sullivan Hill

Award-winning journalist and author Wil Haygood has brought to life some of the most important stories in American history. His 2008 Washington Post article about an African American man who served eight U.S. presidents inspired the film The Butler, and his most recent book, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, chronicles the life of the first African American Supreme Court Justice. Haygood recently visited Loyola’s campus both to speak to outgoing students at commencement and to address incoming students—who read Showdown as their First Year Text—at new student convocation this fall. (Watch Haygood’s convocation remarks here.)

In this extended interview, Haygood discusses why Thurgood Marshall’s story matters today, his thoughts on journalism and a free press, and his experiences on the set of The Butler.

What inspired you to write Showdown?

If you look at Thurgood Marshall, the sweep of his life—the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and then the years he was on the Supreme Court—the flow and drama of those decades tells the story of this country.

My family is originally from Selma, Alabama, that civil rights city, and they moved to Columbus, Ohio, in the 1940s. My mother was a young girl then, and so she did not have access to a good quality education because of the color of her skin. One of her dreams, when she moved up North and married, was that her children would have an opportunity at a much better education than she did.

It meant the world to my mother in 1954, when she was a young mother, that Thurgood Marshall went before the Supreme Court and won his Brown v. Board of Education desegregation lawsuit. That meant, theoretically, that black children would have a chance at decent schools.

If you tell that story, then you’re telling the story of everybody who fled the South for those types of dreams.

What do you hope first-year students glean from reading your book?

Freedom in this country has never been free, especially for African Americans. To have focused on Thurgood Marshall, in my mind, was a wonderful way to tell American history and the arch of this country through the work that he did on behalf of equality and justice.

Students need to know about Thurgood Marshall for the simple fact that he was a patriot, and I think that word has been twisted and tossed around so much of late that we really need to constantly and vigilantly understand who is a genuine patriot. Marshall cared about this country; he cared about voting rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights. The entire spectrum of his life and his court victories, in the battle to confirm him in the highest court in the land, spoke of the ongoing struggle as it relates to justice in this country.

Why is Marshall’s story an important one to tell at this moment in history?

We just came through a very divisive presidential campaign, where racial minorities and women were egregiously and verbally attacked. It has been 50 years since Thurgood Marshall ascended onto the high court. In terms of history, that’s not all that long ago. And it seems a very timely moment, because of the racial confrontations in this country, of the police shootings of unarmed black civilians, of the efforts to repress the minority vote in American cities.

These are roadblocks that Thurgood Marshall always battled against, and his victories were won through the court. I think that’s why he always carried a military replica of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket. He always referred to it. That document is such a beautiful expression of justice and freedom that Marshall always knew he could lean on it. We need the example of Thurgood Marshall today as much as we’ve ever needed it.

In your convocation address, you talked to the Class of 2021 about ways to use their Jesuit education to make a difference. How can others stand up for justice?

America has been in this zone before, where we didn’t know where we were going, and where people suddenly began to vocally attack other people to where there were marches in town squares. This is not new; it is a part, tragically, of the fabric of this country. But there’s always been a road to overcome the hate, and that road remains as visible as ever.

Those who want to improve upon the harsh climate have to do several things: They have to get to know people who don’t look like them, they have to vote, and they have to learn to respect people from different cultures and different genders. That is one of the things I loved as a kid about books. You could go to the public library and pick up a book and read how people in South Africa live, or people in India live.

Those who hate have a very narrow-minded outlook on life, but when you learn, your worldview opens. And I think that is very important. No matter how dark the hour seems, there is light looming. And I think those who play a part in the coming of that light will feel much better as human beings.

What advice do you have for current journalism students?

Telling narrative stories is always a phenomenal way to interest and intrigue and excite readers. It was journalism that taught me how to tell stories. I always keep my eye on the hearts that are beating inside of the people in the stories that I write about.

We need writers and journalists and good filmmakers now, more than ever. We have racial uprisings, these mass shootings, and this news cycle that every day seems worrisome. And so it is very important to tell stories of the people in Mississippi and South Carolina, of all races, who are trying to make sure that people have access to the ballot box, trying to talk reasonably about gun control, trying to make the schools better, trying to investigate the criminal justice system.

These are all things that journalists in training can do, and it is what I’ll continue to do—to tell these stories that I think are good stories because they have so much drama in them. They’re also the kind of stories that help even me understand this country—where we were, where we are, and, some days, I have a sense of where we’re going.

Why is the free press important for the United States?

Free press, all the way back to the days of slavery and the American Revolution, is tantamount to the survival of this nation. As a foreign correspondent who has covered several wars, its heartbreaking to see villages absolutely decimated from a nighttime attack by rebels. In these small towns or villages under siege, you often find that the people who overtake them, one of the first things they do is burn down the newspaper office or somebody’s home if they were printing leaflets in an effort to get people to stop fighting.

That is the first thing that happens in these war zones: They eliminate the free press. That’s because these warmongers want to suppress freedom and they want everybody to think like they think. So that pillar, freedom of the press, remains very vibrant, thank goodness, in this country.

Your Washington Post story about Eugene Allen led to a book and a movie. When you wrote the story, did you have any inkling it would become that powerful and moving?

When I wrote the story on Mr. Allen, there were so many things that happened. His wife passed away on the day the country elected the first African American president. And so, as I was writing it, I looked at it as a story that I could bring my narrative knowledge to; I knew about Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, some of the historical figures I mentioned in the piece.

When I step away from newspapers and take a leave of absence to work on books, it seems that, when I come back into the newsroom, I become a much better journalist. So both of these vocations of mine serve the other: I’m a better journalist because of the books, and I probably write better because of my newspaper experience. And so that story was a good merging of so many themes that I had learned in life as a writer and a researcher. But I never did think, as I was doing it, that it would attract the attention of Hollywood and that it would eventually get made into a movie that has now played all over the world.

How do you approach interviews to get anecdotes as powerful as those in that Post piece?

When I knocked on Mr. and Mrs. Allen’s door, I really think that they hadn’t made up their mind yet if they were going to reveal to me all of this amazing history. There were very few emblems of their White House years in their living room, in their upstairs home, and you saw nothing that would have told you that this man worked at the White House for eight presidents. So after several hours of me very patiently asking questions and listening to them, Mrs. Allen finally turned to Mr. Allen and said, “Sweetie, it’s OK to show him now.” And I didn’t know what that meant.

He stood up—he was quite frail, elderly—and asked me to take him by the arm, led me through the living room and into the kitchen. There was a door leading to this basement. There were several padlocks on this door, and I had no idea why someone would need locks on the door leading to their basement. He told me to hold his arm tight, because it was dark in the basement and he had to get to the center of the room in the basement to turn on the light switch. So we walked very slowly down the steps, and we reached the center of the basement and he flicked on the light.

I had never seen anything like it; it was like being dropped into one of the loveliest rooms at the Smithsonian. There were photographs of Mr. Allen with President Truman, with President Eisenhower, with President Kennedy, with President Johnson, with President Ford, with President Carter, with President Reagan. It was amazing. There were framed letters from every First Lady to him about his work that he had done. There were pictures of him in a tuxedo at White House events. There were gifts from each president: a Stetson hat from Lyndon Johnson, a tie that President Kennedy had worn during the week he was assassinated. There were about 12 big photo albums of pictures with thousands of photographs of him in the White House and on Air Force One. There were pictures of him and Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, all these 20th century icons who had passed through the White House. This is American history through the eyes of an unknown African American employee at the White House, who never missed a day of work in over 35 years.

I was stunned at what I was looking at—it really was like a self-made museum that was so rich in history. I remember walking over to him and I said, “Mr. Allen, wait a minute now, you mean to tell me that no one has ever written about this? About your life?” And he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.” It gives me goose bumps now, just to even recall that moment.

Their son, Charles Allen, always tells me when I see him that it was so unique that his mother trusted me to tell this story, which is why she wanted her husband to unlock that door.

Do you have any mementos from the set of The Butler?

On the last day of filming, Lee Daniels, the director, and Pamela Williams, one of the producers, called me into this big room on the set. Lee thanked me for finding Mr. and Mrs. Allen and writing about them, then introduced me to Stephen Rochon, who was a former White House chief usher and a technical advisor to the movie.

Stephen said that before arriving on set he was back in the White House visiting friends and ran into President Obama, who asked him what he was up to. He told the president that he was heading down to New Orleans to work on the movie The Butler, and that he wanted to get a special gift for Wil Haygood, who wrote the story. So the president tells him to hold on a minute, and goes into his office. He comes back and hands Stephen a box and says, “Why don’t you give this to Wil? He’s a writer, he’ll probably like it.” It was an ink pen with the presidential seal, in a leather case. That was a pretty special moment. That I wrote the story and the making of the film touched the president of the United States at the time, and he sent me a gift. That’s pretty special.

Another unforgettable moment: I had lunch with Oprah Winfrey when I was on the set. She’s explained to me why she really wanted to do the movie. That whole era of blacks in the 1950s, like the Allens, who worked hard up North and sent money to churches in the South to help with the Civil Rights movement, that story has never been told, she said. She told me, “I read your story, Wil, when it came out. And I said to one of my staff, if they ever make a movie of this, I want to be involved.”

What are you working on next?

I am the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow for a year at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Only one American writer gets this award, so I’m very honored. I’m working on a book about an all-black high school in Columbus, Ohio, in 1968-1969, and all of the amazing and triumphant things that happened inside that high school in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. They won two state championships that year, one in basketball and one in baseball, and they also won an academic prize.

It’s another example of looking back to a great moment in history and giving evidence that there is a way forward in this narrative story that I found. It has a whole lot of wonderful lessons inside of it. The book will be out next fall, so look for it.

You’ve been on campus at Loyola twice in the past year. What’s impressed you most?

It’s such a rich place in terms of the scholars who are there, in terms of the type of students the school attracts. Simply walking across the campus always makes me feel that I’m in a very, very special place. I certainly didn’t have the grades coming out of high school to be admitted there [laughs], but it seems that the students know the richness and the power and the sacredness of a Jesuit education, and it seems that they truly believe in it.

Every time that I step on the campus, I myself feel like a better human being simply for having been there. I’ve been quite honored and touched to have established this soulful connection to the school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. An abbreviated version appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Loyola magazine.