- Black, Hugo LaFayette
- (1886-1971)One of the longestserving Supreme Court justices, Hugo Black was born near Ashland, Alabama. Educated at Ashland College, he graduated from Alabama Law School in Tuscaloosa in 1906 and practiced law in Birmingham. Black joined the army in 1917 and became a captain in the artillery but did not see action. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1927 and served until 1937. From 1935 he chaired the Senate Committee on Education and Labor and supported the initial legislation to introduce minimum wages and maximum hours that eventually became the Fair Labor Standards Act.In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Black to succeed Willis Van Devanter on the Supreme Court. In the furor following Roosevelt’s attempted “court packing,” the nomination was referred to the Judiciary Committee before going before the Senate for approval. Questions were asked both about the constitutional issue of appointing someone still sitting in Congress and about Black’s past connections with the Ku Klux Klan, which Black denied. The nomination was approved, but when the African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier revealed that he had defended a Klansman for murder in 1921 and been a Klan member himself from 1923 until 1925, Black was forced to broadcast a retraction of his denial on radio, and he indicated that his membership had been brief and insignificant. His subsequent career in the court, with a commitment to upholding the Bill of Rights, often demonstrated sympathy for civil rights causes and decisions affecting African Americans, such as Shelley v. Kraemer and later Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Although an advocate of the literal reading of the Constitution, Black supported the expansive use of federal power in matters of commerce and supported decisions to uphold New Deal legislation. With William O. Douglas, Black dissented from the decisions upholding convictions of members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) under the Smith Act. He also argued for strict separation of church and state. However, he wrote the majority opinion upholding the government’s decision to intern Japanese Americans in Korematsu v. United States, argued in favor of the use of wiretapping, and argued against the notion of constitutional guarantees to rights of privacy. Although a supporter of the principle of free speech, Black distinguished between “speech” and “action” and dissented when the court ruled to allow flag burning or wearing obscene slogans in 1969 and 1971, respectively. He also did not agree that the Constitution prohibited use of the death penalty. He retired shortly before his death.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.