Hugo L. Black Essay - Critical Essays

Howard Ball

Hugo L. Black

The story of Hugo Lafayette Black is an all-American story. Throughout his life Black referred to himself as a “backward county fellow,” and although he frequently invested this description with a great deal of irony, in many senses it describes just what Black was. Born in rural Harlan, Alabama, the son of a poor farmer, he nevertheless attended medical school and graduated from law school. Yet Black retained a strong sense of academic inferiority, and throughout his life continued his education by reading economics, history, and the classics.

After graduating from law school Black set himself up in private practice, first in Ashland, Alabama, then in Birmingham. Almost immediately, however, he discovered his true vocation: politics. After serving as a police court judge and county prosecutor, he was elected to the United States Senate—but only with Ku Klux Klan backing. Although he resigned from the Klan before entering the Senate, when Black was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1937, he was obliged to make a public confession.

Black served for thirty-four years on the Court, and for at least the first twenty-five, he was one of the most liberal—and influential—justices on the high bench. In the later years of his high Court tenure, when he felt many of his brethren were taking too active a role in deciding public policy, Black’s constitutional fundamentalism was responsible for his assumption of a more conservative judicial stance. Throughout his life he took a literal approach to the United States Constitution, and his insistence on honoring the letter of the law—particularly the dictates of the First Amendment—helped to institute the Court’s “due process revolution.”

Howard Ball does a fine job of rehearsing both Hugo Black’s jurisprudence and professional affiliations, but equally important aspects of Black’s private life go unexplored or unexplained in HUGO L. BLACK: COLD STEEL WARRIOR. The sense of Black’s greatness would only have been enhanced by a more thorough inquiry into the adversities he overcame to achieve his place in the nation’s history.

Source for Further Study

Library Journal. CXXI, June 1, 1996, p. 118.