logo logo

Hugo La Fayette Black

American politician and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.He was active in fraternal organizations, including the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, and the Ku Klux Klan. In religious and racial matters Black shared the views of most whites in his community. Black is widely regarded as one of the most influential Supreme Court justices in the 20th century.

Background

  • Hugo Lafayette Black was the youngest of the eight children of William Lafayette Black and Martha Toland Black. He was born on February 27, 1886, in a small wooden farmhouse in Ashland, Alabama, a poor, isolated rural Clay County town in the Appalachian foothills.

  • Career

    • He then practiced law in Birmingham, and he eventually specialized in labor, personal injury, and criminal law. He was also ambitious politically, and he served as a police judge and as a public prosecutor. After military service during World War I, he resumed his law practice and prospered in it. He also taught Sunday school and was active in fraternal organizations, including the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, and the Ku Klux Klan. In religious and racial matters Black shared the views of most whites in his community. In 1925 Black decided to run for the U.S. Senate. A whirlwind campaign gave him an upset victory in the 1925 Democratic primary, the de facto electoral contest in the Solid South. With entry into the Senate, Black began a reading program that, together with exposure to national problems, enlarged his intellectual horizons. After being elected to a second term, he became an invaluable legislative lieutenant of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Black left his mark on most of the organic New Deal statutes. His proposals for legislation that would set minimum wages and maximum hours for industrial workers were incorporated in the Fair Labor Standards Act (Wages and Hours Law) of 1938. Black's second term was also notable for his filibusters to forestall passage of an antilynching law and for his legislative harrying of the corrupt public utility holding companies.

      In 1937 President Roosevelt named Black to the Supreme Court. News of this surprising appointment, Roosevelt's first to the Court, was soon overshadowed by the bombshell disclosure of Black's Klan membership from 1923 to 1925. But Black and Roosevelt rode out the storm, and soon Black became the leader of an increasingly dominant New Deal bloc on the Court, which undid the judicial vetoes previously placed upon both national and state economic regulation. Black's hands-off attitude on laws regulating the economy was epitomized by his disclamatory assertion that "whether the legislature takes as its textbook Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Lord Keynes or some other is no concern of ours" (Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S. 726 [1963]). This strand in his thought crossed with a libertarian and activist strand on many noneconomic issues. Thus, in 1940, Black spoke for the Court in reversing the death sentence passed on five black tenant farmers on the basis of coerced confessions (Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227):Under our constitutional sytem, Courts stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered or because they are nonconforming victims of prejudice or public excitement. This defense of the weak was not unqualified. In 1944 (in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214), Black upheld the World War II incarceration, on basis of race, of 100,000 American citizens and their relatives of Japanese descent--"hardships are a part of war." Although the opinion was severely criticized by civil libertarians, Black never disavowed one word of it and 20 years later entered a bristling defense of both the action and his response to it--"I would do precisely the same thing today."

      The postwar hysteria about possible Communist subversion provided a strong catalyst for Black's libertarian instincts. Black objected to the conviction of the leaders of the U.S. Communist Party under the Smith Act, a sedition law.Public opinion being what it now is, few will protest the conviction of these Communist petitioners. There is hope, however, that in calmer times ... , this or some later court will restore the First Amendment liberties ... where they belong in a free society. (Dennis v. U.S., 494 [1951])The subversion and civil liberties issues exacerbated the long-standing differences between Black and Felix Frankfurter, who espoused judicial restraint on legislative actions affecting civil liberties as well as those affecting the economy. These issues also helped produce the two canons of Black's judicial outlook. The first was a literalist reading of constitutional guarantees, in particular, the First Amendment--"I read ‘no#no law abridging’abridging# to mean no law abridging . . . "(Smith v. California, 361 U.S. at 157 [1959]). The second was an unwavering insistence that the content of the Bill of Rights had been incorporated into the 14th Amendment, thereby binding the individual states to recognize all of those rights. Black thus played a critical and decisive part in the Warren Court's equal rights decisions, such as the school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the legislative reapportionment decision in Baker v. Carr (1962), the latter of which was prefigured by the Black dissent in Colegrove v. Green (320 U.S. 549 [1946]). Black also contributed to the Warren Court's landmark decisions, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), enlarging the rights of criminal suspects.

      But during the social upheavals of the 1960's, Black did not support the claims of civil rights protestors that they were entitled to use public and private property as a forum for their grievances. Black also wrote an impassioned dissent to the Court's proclamation, in Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479 [1964]), of a "right of privacy" that would invalidate a state law forbidding contraception. "I like my privacy as well as the next man. Unlike my brethren, I am simply unable to find a constitutional right to it."

      Black's last important opinion was on a First Amendment issue, the governmental restriction of press publication of the Pentagon Papers (a secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War). In that opinion Black insisted that the mere existence of the restraint was a palpable and unacceptable violation of freedom of the press.

      Black retired from the Court on Sept. 17, 1971, and died at midnight on September 25.

    Politics

    He joined the Ku Klux Klan, thinking it necessary for his political career. Running for the Senate as the "people's" candidate, Black believed he needed the votes of Klan members. Near the end of his life, Black would admit that joining the Klan was a mistake, but he went on to say "I would have joined any group if it helped get me votes.

    Party affiliation: Democratic Party

    Religion

    He disliked the Catholic Church as an institution and gave numerous anti-Catholic speeches in his 1926 election campaign to KKK meetings across Alabamadisliked the Catholic Church as an institution" and gave numerous anti-Catholic speeches in his 1926 election campaign to KKK meetings across Alabama

    Hugo Black
    See on larger map
    Born February 27, 1886
    Died September 25, 1971
    (aged 85)
    Nationality
    Ethnicity:
    • 1907
      University of Alabama School of Law
    • August 18, 1937 - September 17, 1971
      Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court