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. He was born in 1886 in rural Harlan, Alabama, the eighth and last child of a poor farmer and shopkeeper and his wife. The Blacks’ prospects did improve in 1889, when William Black moved the family to Ashland, population 350, where he again set himself up as a merchant.
By the time Black was ready to attend college, his family was firmly established in the middle class, and Black decided to follow his brother Orlando into the medical profession. Despite his lack of a college education, Black was accepted into Birmingham Medical College. He stayed only a year, however, deciding that he was more suited to the study of law. In 1906, he graduated with honors from the University of Alabama Law School. Even in the face of this academic success, however, Black retained a strong sense of educational inferiority and embarked on a campaign of intellectual self-improvement, focusing on ancient Greek civilization. It was a campaign that would last for the rest of his life: Even after he reached the pinnacle of his profession as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he continued to read economics, history, and the classics at the Library of Congress.
After graduating from law school, Black set himself up in private practice, first in Ashland, then in Birmingham. Almost immediately, however, he discovered his true vocation: politics. In 1910, he accepted an appointment to become the Birmingham police court judge. It was a thankless position, but his two-year tenure there filled Black with political ambition, and shortly thereafter he was elected county prosecutor, a position he held from 1914 to 1917. After a brief hiatus occasioned by World War I, during which Black trained soldiers in Tennessee, he returned to his legal practice—this time with an eye on the U.S. Senate.
Black’s political skills and ambitions always proved to be his primary source of strength, but in 1923, they led him to make a nearly ruinous decision. Alabama politics was at the time largely controlled by moneyed, aristocratic downstate “Bourbon” Democrats. As an unpedigreed native of the northern part of the state, Black, like many of his peers, felt obliged to join the then powerful Klan in order to get the political backing he needed. It worked. Black’s later protestations to the contrary, he was for several years an active Klan member, and in 1926—despite Black’s quiet resignation from the group a year earlier—Klan backing helped send him to the U.S. Senate.
Once in Congress, however, Black established one of the most liberal voting records around; his advocacy of the thirty-hour workweek even led to accusations that the senator was a “Bolshevik.” During his two terms, Black maintained a high profile serving as chairman on committees investigating the public utilities industry and lobbying practices. He was also an ardent New Dealer, even supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s questionable court-packing plan, which would have led to an undermining of Supreme Court power and therefore of the separation of powers. In 1937, Black was rewarded for his loyalty by a nomination to the Supreme Court.
Black had gained a reputation as the Senate’s “Chief Inquisitor” and made a number of political enemies there, so when his name came before the same body for confirmation, it provoked a stormy response. For the first time in his public life, Black’s onetime Klan membership became an issue, but the Judge, as he always preferred to be called, once...
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