Hugo L. Black

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As a Justice of the Supreme Court, Black sought to define and in some areas extend constitutional protection of civil liberties, while delineating the prerogatives of government; for more than one-third of a century, he propounded the absolute inviolability of the Constitution as the basis of the nation’s jurisprudence.

Early Life

The youngest of eight children, Hugo Lafayette Black was born in Harlan, Alabama, on February 27, 1886. His father, William L. Black, was a country storekeeper who surrendered periodically to bouts of secret drinking; his mother, Martha Toland Black, from a well-bred family, was the village postmistress. From the age of six, the young Hugo attended trials at the Clay County courthouse in Ashland. He was educated for a while at Ashland Academy. He attended Birmingham Medical College for one year and, at the age of eighteen, enrolled at the University of Alabama. By virtue of his excellent academic record, Black was granted early admission to the law school and was graduated with the university’s LL.B. degree in 1906.

Black began his practice in Birmingham, where he pleaded labor cases and damage suits. He served briefly as a judge on the city’s police court; in 1914, he was elected the county solicitor, or prosecutor. Increasingly, he came to oppose, and sometimes took action against, the summary and forcible extraction of confessions from suspects. During World War I, Black enlisted in the army and, although he was not called for combat duty, he was discharged as a captain in the field artillery. Upon his return to civilian life, he resumed his law practice in Alabama; in 1921, he married Josephine Foster, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, whose lovely dark features had attracted him. During the next twelve years, they became the parents of two sons and one daughter.

Black gave the impression of formidable tenacity and reserve. He was five feet eight inches tall and wiry; his features were distinguished by his sharp, hooked nose and piercing blue eyes. He spoke in a gentle, melodious drawl that could be sharpened by interrogatory tones or softened with personal warmth. He had a brisk, energetic gait and, for recreation, played a vigorous game of tennis.

Life’s Work

During his private practice, Black occasionally had taken cases of white clients against blacks; as his political ambitions grew, he joined a number of civic organizations. In 1923, he made a decision that later seemed fraught with fateful implications: He became a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It may have been that for a time he was attracted by the Klan’s populist appeal, or that he recognized its political strength; he spoke to several meetings of the Klan and then, less than two years later, withdrew abruptly and unceremoniously. Black emerged first into national political prominence in 1926, with a spirited campaign that won for him a seat in the United States Senate. During the early years of the Depression, Black sponsored legislation to promote public works programs and called for a national thirty-hour workweek. In 1932, he won reelection on a platform of broad support for the national Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although he would not risk public disfavor on issues on which his home state was sensitive, such as a proposed antilynching law or the sensational Scottsboro rape cases, Black became nationally known for his chairmanship of major Senate investigations of public utilities and airmail contracts. Moreover, though he differed with the Roosevelt Administration on some economic proposals, he roundly condemned the Supreme Court’s rulings against New Deal legislation. Black became an early and staunch proponent of the Administration’s proposal that would allow the president to appoint additional justices to sit alongside those on the Court who had passed the age of seventy. Much as this measure divided even the Democratic Party, Black’s standing in the Senate, and his broad agreement with the Administration on economic and judicial matters, were vital considerations when Roosevelt nominated him, in 1937, to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter. While Black was confirmed easily enough, questions about his Klan affiliation persisted and grew. In response to allegations in newspaper stories, the new justice delivered a brief and compelling statement, which reached millions of radio listeners, disavowing any connection with that organization since his resignation twelve years before.

Expectations that Black would be intellectually unsuited for the Court, or that he would act merely at the Administration’s behest, were gradually shown to be unfounded. In spite of an education that was limited and exiguous when compared with those of other justices, Black was a fervent autodidact, and even during his years in Washington he had read widely in constitutional law, philosophy, American, British, and ancient history, and the social sciences. During his early years on the Court, Black evinced a basic support for the government on questions of antitrust and held with the Administration on controversial economic issues. Questions of civil liberties were enlivened when he wrote the Court’s opinion in Chambers v. Florida (1940), which invalidated a criminal confession obtained during incommunicado confinement. In Betts v. Brady (1942), writing for himself and two colleagues, he contended that indigent defendants should not be convicted without the benefit of counsel. On the other hand, in Korematsu v. United States (1944), he held for the Court that wartime circumstances justified the forcible resettlement of Japanese Americans.

Black frequently found with a minority in cases that heralded the onset of the Cold War. In several notable dissents he maintained that Communists and other radicals were entitled to the constitutional protection of free speech. In Dennis v. United States (1951), he argued in dissent that mere speech, albeit of an admitted Communist, could not be proscribed as inciteful or tending to overthrow the government. Elsewhere, Black opposed loyalty oaths or other limitations on the civil liberties of...

(The entire section is 2557 words.)