The Supreme Court: Hugo Black (1937-1971)

Hugo Black (1937-1971)

Hugo Black earned his law degree from the University of Alabama and then became one of Birmingham's leading trial lawyers. He set a goal of being elected senator by the age of 40. In the South, that meant he had to join the Democratic Party. He also believed that to be electable, he had to join the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which he thought was necessary to further his political career.

Just the Facts

Black's involvement in the KKK was very limited. He joined the KKK on September 13, 1923, marched in a few parades and spoke at meetings. His speeches were on liberty and encouraged the KKK to be a law-abiding organization. He opposed whipping and other violent activities of the KKK.

While Black was serving in his second Senate term, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Black became an ardent supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and led the fight to help Roosevelt pack the court and change its opposition to New Deal legislation. Even though he lost the fight, when it came time for Roosevelt to nominate his first justice to the Supreme Court, he picked Hugo Black, knowing he would support him on the Court. During his four terms, Roosevelt appointed nine justices.

Black's appointment was opposed by Negro physicians of the National Medical Association because of his KKK connection, and a small group of blacks protested his appointment on the day of the Senate debate. The KKK connection had not come up during judiciary committee deliberations and, at that time, there was no proof of his membership.

Opposition to his appointment was also raised because he served on the Senate at the time a change was made in the Supreme Court retirement provisions. Since he could benefit from the change, some questions were raised about blocking his appointment. The Constitution forbids a Congressman from being appointed to a U.S. office for which benefits were increased by that same Congress. After intense debate, Black was confirmed by a vote of 63 to 16.

After Black took the Supreme Court oath, the newspaper Pittsburgh Post-Gazette exposed Black's KKK membership. There were major protests, but the issue was pushed to the side as war fears before World War II began to build in the country.

Court Connotations

The McCarthy Era got its name from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led a witch-hunt to expose people with communist views after World War II. Many who were proved to be members of the Communist Party lost their jobs. Anyone called before McCarthy's committee in the House of Representatives had to prove their loyalty to the country by naming other members of the communist party in order to keep their jobs. He accused Harry Truman of being soft on communism and portrayed him as a dangerous liberal, which helped to elect Republican Dwight Eisenhower as president.

Chambers v. Florida

Black's service on the Court proved that he was not a bigot. He opposed racial segregation and championed minority rights. One case that helped prove his position was Chambers v. Florida in 1940. Chambers was one of about 30 to 40 blacks arrested after an elderly white man was robbed and murdered in Pompano, Florida.

Some of the blacks were held in the Dade County jail and questioned for more than a week, sometimes throughout the night, until confessions were secured. The prisoners were not allowed to confer with an attorney or to speak with friends or relatives.

They were questioned one at a time, surrounded by 10 men. They were continually threatened and physically mistreated. After about a week of this type of treatment, four of them finally confessed in desperation and for fear of their lives.

Formal charges had not been brought before the confessions. Two days after the confessions, the four men were indicted and arraigned. Two pleaded guilty and two pleaded not guilty. One of the ones that pleaded not guilty changed his plea to guilty, leaving Chambers as the sole one to be tried. He was convicted of murder based on his confession and the testimony of the three other confessors.

The Florida State Supreme Court overturned the first conviction when it learned that the confessions were not voluntary and had been obtained by coercion and duress. After some court maneuvering, the case was moved to a different count and tried. Even with the change of venue the four men were convicted, so the Supreme Court of Florida upheld the conviction. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of all four black men. In writing his opinion for the court, Black said:

  • “The determination to preserve an accused's right to procedural due process sprang in large part from knowledge of the historical truth that the rights and liberties of people accused of crime could not be safely entrusted to secret inquisitorial processes. The testimony of centuries, in governments of varying kinds over populations of different races and beliefs, stood as proof that physical and mental torture and coercion had brought about the tragically unjust sacrifices of some who were the noblest and most useful of their generations. The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel, solitary confinement, protracted questioning and cross questioning, and other ingenious forms of entrapment of the helpless or unpopular had left their wake of mutilated bodies and shattered minds along the way to the cross, the guillotine, the stake and the hangman's noose. And they who have suffered most from secret and dictatorial proceedings have almost always been the poor, the ignorant, the numerically weak, the friendless, and the powerless.”

Hugo Black staunchly defended the First Amendment right to free speech during the McCarthy Era. His support was so strong that some say he and his fellow justice William Douglas were under FBI surveillance during the 1953 Rosenberg case. The Rosenbergs were convicted as spies and electrocuted in 1953. The Supreme Court never heard the case. As we've discussed, four justices must vote in favor of hearing a case before being put on the docket. Hugo Black became sick before the conference was held to discuss the case and was not available to vote. Without his vote, there weren't enough votes in favor of taking the case.

Black became seriously ill and retired from the Supreme Court in 1971 after serving 34 years. He died eight days after retiring.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.