Hugo Black and the KKK

On August 12, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt called Hugo Black into his office, and, after a few minutes of small talk, removed a Supreme Court nomination form from his desk and handed the paper to Black. Thus Hugo Black was nominated as a United States Supreme Court Justice. Black, born in a farmhouse in Alabama, received the appointment after eleven years of Senate Service, in which he proved himself to be an enthusiastic New Dealer. In the New Deal spirit, he tempered justice with mercy to benefit the common man. For example, after a black man, accused of beating a white furniture dealer, explained to Judge Black that his wife was sick and he was being exploited by the dealer. Black responded: "You get back to your sick wife; and if I hear of you paying anymore on the furniture Iím going to put you in jail--not for beating this man, but for well--contempt of court." As a Senator, Black was a tenacious inquisitor; his investigations pried into steamship and airmail scandals.

Roosevelt and the public alike believed that the Senate would confirm the nomination . Despite protests to the nomination from a myriad of different groups, such as dissatisfied Democrats, Republicans, and skeptical blacks intimidated by the southern Senator, it was predicted that not more than seven votes would be cast against Black's nomination. Anti-New Dealers felt the appointment was Roosevelt's attempt to manipulate the Judiciary by appointing a Left- Winger and part of his "court-packing" plan .

Despite the opposition, the Senate and much of the populace felt that the appointment of Black was yet another of Rooseveltís intelligent and competent moves. Through the appointment, FDR pleased the South and the liberals simultaneously and easy confirmation was anticipated. A call came from the public for "great minds" in the Supreme Court to "compromise, to adjust, and to synthesize the conflicts arising in the rapidly changing." At the time of nomination, Black seemed to be the man for the job. As expected, the Judiciary Committee upheld the Justice's nomination 13 to 4, and the nomination was sent to the Senate.

Six hours of debate decided the fate of the Senator. The opposition to the nomination was lead by Senators Burke and Copeland, Democrats, and Austin, a Republican. In a emotionally charged speech, Copeland attacked Black, asserting that his conjectured association with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's was reason in itself to reject the nomination. At that time, the Klan connection remained obscure and insignificant, for Black's Klan connection had not come up in the initial Judiciary Committee deliberations. Nonetheless, although Blackís Klan involvement had negligible influence on the nomination, a concerned group of blacks protested the court's choice on the day of Senate debate. The Negro physicians of the National Medical Association adopted a resolution protesting Blackís appointment, proclaiming the appointment noxious to the entire country as well as to the black race.

The most controversial issue of the nomination, however, was not Black's speculated involvement with the KKK. Instead, questions were raised regarding the application of Section 6 Article 1 of the United States Constitution, which forbids a Congressman from being appointed to a United States office whose emoluments have been increased by that same Congress during the period in which the appointee was a Congressman. Because the Senate had passed the Supreme Court Retirement Law, which increased the emoluments of the office of Supreme Court Justice, while Black was a Senator, some felt he was therefore ineligible for the office of Justice. After intense debate, however, the Senate confirmed Blackís nomination on August 17, 1937, by a vote of 63 to 16.

But after Black took the Supreme Court oath, a newspaper reporter announced Blackís membership in the KKK to the public, and, as illustrated by many political cartoons, public opinion turned against Black. Immediately, the exposure of Blackís KKK affiliation discredited Roosevelt's appointment and the Supreme Court reform plan. Charges of Justice Blackís Klan membership reopened the issue of court-packing a point in Rooseveltís administration the public generally despised. The Supreme Court issues were seen as Roosevelt's bane, for every time he attempted to alter anything in the judicial system his reputation was scarred by the volatile reactions from the public. Now Black was seen by the public as a man with two personalities: a champion of the New Deal and a man with a mysterious and devious past.

However, Black's affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan was ephemeral and irrelevant to his political career. After becoming a member of the Klan on September 13, 1923, he marched in a few parades and spoke in meetings. His speeches were mainly on liberty, and he stressed to the more belligerent members of the Klan that it should be a law-abiding organization; thus, he emphasized, activities such as whipping should not be tolerated. Even the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan clarified that Black was neither a Klansman nor a sympathizer. Nonetheless, in September and October, Black's KKK involvement hung like a shadow over Roosevelt. Black admitted that although he had indeed been a member, his membership was short and trifling, and he did not consider himself a Klansman. Black's resolute statement regarding his involvement, as well as the public's fear of war commencing in Japan took the spotlight off Justice Black. The controversy soon subsided as the War Scare overshadowed FDR's domestic problems.

Despite the initial concern over Black's troubling history as a Klan member, his service as Justice proved he was the antithesis of a bigot. He rejected the attempts of states to impede federal legislation in labor relations, racial segregation, and wartime peace. His service proved that he was, in fact, a champion of minority rights, further dispelling the notion that he was, even if just for a moment, a Klansman. Black retired in 1971 after a long and impressive career as a United States Supreme Court Justice, indeed a great mind after all.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Aikman, Duncan. "Justice Black: A Man of Two Personalities" The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 22,1937), 7: 3.

Berryman. "He Who Laughs Last!" The Washington Star (August 14, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

"Black Confirmed By Senate, 63 to 16." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 18. 1937), 1.

"Black Admits Klan Link, Denies Intolerance." Scholastic October 16, 1937: 14.

"Black Affair." Nation October 9, 19370, 361-2.

"Black and KKK." Literary Digest September 16, 1937 : 6.

"Black in White." Time September 20, 1937: 13.

"Black's Eligibility for Supreme Court." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 15, 1937), 4: 10.

Brown. "Still Playing Around With the Idea." The New York Herald Tribune (August 18, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: the Lion and the Fox. New York, Harcourt, 1956.

Cope, Alfred Haines. Franklin Roosevelt and The Supreme Court. Boston: Heath, 1952.

Curtic, C.P. "How About Hugo Black?" Junior Atlantic May 1939 :667-74.

Dinwoody, Dean. "Precedent Binds Black as Justice." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 22, 1937), 4: 6.

Doyle, Jerry. "No Squat, No Stoop, No Squint." The New York Post (August 18, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Dunne, Gerald T. Hugo Black and the Judicial Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Einuadi, Mario. The Roosevelt Revolution. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

Evans. "Shifting the Scenery to Hide the Mess." The Columbus Dispatch (October 10, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 24.

Graves, John Temple. "Alabamans Await Hot Senate Race." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 22, 1937), 4: 6.

"High Court Asked to Unseat Black." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 21, 1937), 1: 6.

Hungerford. "Giving Him the Needle." The Pittsburgh Post Gazette (August 19, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

"I Did Join, I Resigned; The Case Is Closed." Newsweek October 11, 1937:12.

Jensen, Cecil. "X Marks the Spot." The Chicago News (September 20, 1937), The Basil Oí Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

"Judiciary; Slug?" Time May 31, 1937: 13.

"Klanís Chief Hits Back." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 18, 1937), 6.

"Makes first Queries from the Bench." The New York Times, LXXXVI (December 16, 1937), 9: 3.

Messner. "Embarrassing Moments." The Malone Telegram (September 17, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Mr. Justice and Mrs. Black: The Memoirs of Hugo L. Black and Elizabeth Black. New York: Random House, 1986.

"Negroes Protest Court Choice." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 18, 1937), 6.

Newman, Robert K. Hugo Black: A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Norman. "Heís Losing His Spotlight." The Boston Post (October 19, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 24.

Ray. S.J. "One Way of Getting the Old Gentlemanís Approval." The Kansas City Star (August 16, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

"Reorganization of Federal Judiciary." Vital Speeches September 1, 1937: 674.

"Resigns from Senate." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 10, 1937), sec 1: 2.

Russel, Bruce. "The Road Black." The Los Angeles Times (October 5, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 24.

"Salute To Justice Black." Nation August 21, 1937: 183-4.

Shafer. "Every Time He Touches It." The Cincinnati Times-Star (September 16, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Shafer. "Court Reform." The Cincinnati Times-Star (September 20, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Schloeden, Nicholas S. "Great Minds Needed." The New York Times, LXXXVI (August 22, 1937), 4: 8.

Sebastian, J. "Klansman Black? Reply." Commonwealth October 15, 1937, 559-60.

Simon, James F. The Antagonists: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Civil Liberties in America . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Werner. Charles G. "Meet the New Man Boys." Oklahoma Oklahoman (August 16, 1937), The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

 


Send comments to Paul Bachorz at PaulKB2T@aol.com.


Copyright © 1997 Niskayuna High School
E-mail: baciewj@wizvax.net