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Hugo Black and the K.K.K.
President Roosevelt had failed to “pack” a hostile Supreme Court, and now the first New Dealer he named to that high bench stood accused of being a lifetime member of the infamous Ku Klux Klan
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
Provoked to a rare display of emotion, Senator Black defended his bill against his fellow southerners. “I subscribe,” he shouted in the Senate, “to the gospel that a man who is born in Alabama and who can do as much work as a man born in any state in New England is entitled to the same pay if he does the same work.” The Black-Connery bill passed the Senate on August 1, only to become stalled in the House. There were few in Washington optimistic enough to predict that it would finally become the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Newspapermen familiar with Roosevelt’s moods described the President in those August dog days as “sore and vengeful.” He wanted to surprise the Senate and, in particular, to give its rebellious southerners a bitter pill that they would have to swallow. If his nominee pleased the administration’s powerful new allies in organized labor, so much the better. Few senators were held in higher esteem by union chieftains than Hugo Black, who had stubbornly pressed since 1932 for labor’s dream of a thirty-hour work week.
Obviously, the President’s sympathies were also aroused. Black’s loyalty to Roosevelt in the court fight and his supposed heresy to the South in the wage-hour controversy had encouraged forces in Alabama that were opposed to his re-election in 1938. Many Alabama newspapers openly demanded Black’s defeat. Lumber and industrial interests, fighting the pending labor law, stirred up Alabama farmers with the argument that higher pay in the mills would mean higher prices in the stores.
Weighing all these factors, discarding one by one the other possible nominees, Roosevelt made his choice. “And they’ll have to take him, too,” he told Parley gleefully, after the news broke.
At noon on August 12, when the White House courier arrived at the door of the Senate, the burden of the President’s message was known only to Senator and Mrs. Black and Attorney General Cummings. At the White House, Roosevelt, impatient as a small boy with a trick to play, waited for his surprise to be revealed. To see the impact for himself, he shared the news with Press Secretary Stephen T. Early. “Jesus Christ!” exclaimed Early, and the President grinned.
As the White House messenger approached the Senate podium, Black, in a white linen’suit, sat quietly at his desk, his face impassive. An observant reporter noted that the Senator held a sheaf of papers, which he was methodically shredding into small bits. From the gallery, Mrs. Black, in a dark suit and broad-brimmed hat, peered anxiously down.
Senator Henry F. Ashurst, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked unanimous consent to consider immediately a message from the President. Hiram W. Johnson, the progressive Republican from California who had supported Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 but had fought against the court plan, asked the nature of the message. Told that it was a Supreme Court nomination, Johnson promptly objected to immediate consideration.
Nevertheless, at the direction of Vice President John Nance Garner, the Senate clerk opened the message and began to read: “I nominate Hugo L. Black.…” After a moment of stunned silence, Ashurst rose to plead again for immediate action in accordance with the “immemorial usage” of the Senate. But Johnson was adamant. For the first time since 1888, the executive appointment of a senator or former senator was referred to a committee for investigation.
A few of Black’s colleagues gathered around to congratulate the nominee, but many others allowed their displeasure to show on their faces. The reporter for the New York Times said the nomination of Black “dropped like salt into political wounds already rubbed raw.…” Columnist Dorothy Thompson called the choice “cheap, ” and she added: “We have finally carried the spoils system to the Supreme bench, openly and cynically.” But William Alien White wrote in the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette that the President had hit a “veritable three-bagger” by naming a liberal, a southerner, and a man whom the Senate would have to confirm.
Back ate lunch alone that day in the Senate restaurant. Even after ten years, he had few friends in the upper chamber. Washington journalists described him as a “loner” and said he suffered from an “unpopularity complex.” An ardent partisan in floor debate and a zealous investigator in committee hearings, Black had neither time nor temperament for Senate camaraderie. Committee witnesses and senators alike had felt his withering sarcasm or the quick lash of his tongue. Once, after listening to a three-hour speech by Michigan’s Arthur H. Vandenberg, Black arose, complimented Vandenberg, and gravely announced he had only one question to ask: “Is the Senator for or against the bill?”
As a Senate investigator, Black was often compared to the late Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, who had exposed the Elk Hills and Teapot Dome scandals of the Harding administration. Black set out to reveal graft and special privileges—especially during Republican administrations—in government subsidies to airlines and merchant shipping, and later to expose the guises under which lobbyists tried to influence Congress.