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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
In this role he won nationwide attention and set in motion several significant reforms, but his zeal provoked many an unflattering description. One newspaper spoke of his “rhadamanthine eyes,” a magazine called him a “useful Torquemada,” a fellow senator said he used the methods of the Ogpu, the Soviet secret service, and regulars in the Senate press gallery nicknamed him “the ferret.” As a cross-examiner, Black was so rigorous that a shipping-company president called to the witness stand brought along his physician to check his pulse.
In making Black his nominee, then, Roosevelt was rewarding a Senate career of zestful controversy. But there were those in the Senate who remembered its origin. Before the committee hearings began, gossip circulated in the marble corridors about events that had taken place in Alabama more than a decade earlier.
If Hugo Black thought of the Klan at all in 1937, it was as a chapter in his life that was long since closed. In the early 1920’s, as a young, politically ambitious lawyer, he liked to describe himself as a “jiner.” He taught the largest adult Sunday-school class in Birmingham, and was a Mason, a Knight of Pythias, and an Odd Fellow. On September 11, 1923, in an act of political expediency, Hugo Black took the oath as one of 10,000 members of Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1.
Wartime patriotism had provided an excuse for a rebirth of the old Ku Klux Klan, and, feeding on a postwar surge of bigotry and nativism, it grew powerful. In Alabama in the mid-1920’s its membership was estimated at between 85,000 and 95,000. There, as in many other states, the Klan ruled politics. When Oscar W. Underwood, the veteran Alabama senator, dared to oppose the order, Klan leaders vowed to retire him from political life. Birmingham Klansmen, initiating some 7,000 new Knights in an outdoor ceremony in 1924, cheered as a coffin containing an effigy of Underwood was “laid to rest” through a trap door in the speakers’ platform. Foreseeing defeat, Underwood chose not to seek reelection.
Two years later, supported by the Klan and the prohibitionists, Hugo Black, forty years of age and relatively unknown, swept past four prominent Alabama politicians to win the Senate nomination in the Democratic primary, thus virtually assuring his election. For more than a year he had campaigned in every county of the state, wearing out two cars on the dusty rural roads.
To forestall criticism of a candidate who was a Klan member, Black had prudently submitted his resignation before he began to campaign. But after his primary victory, he openly acknowledged that Klan support—more than his own energy—had won him the nomination. Speaking to a state-wide Klan rally, he thanked Klansmen and told them he was aware that, without their help, he would not be a United States senator.
Some newspapers drew the same conclusion. The New York Times attributed to Klan support the nominations of Black to the Senate and Bibb Graves to the Alabama governorship. The Montgomery Advertiser called Black “the darling of the Klan,” and the Birmingham News quoted the state’s Klan leader, rejoicing at the election returns: “We licked ‘em clean.”
But the Klan died out as an effective political force, and by 1930 Senator Black had openly broken his ties with it. He was re-elected in 1932, with remnants of the order opposing him. By 1937 the genesis of Black’s Senate career, once a familiar political yarn in Alabama, was half-forgotten.
The Supreme Court nomination resurrected it. Despite the rumors, however, the nomination of Hugo Black moved smoothly through a subcommittee, the only dissenter being Republican Senator Warren R. Austin of Vermont, who raised a constitutional point. The authors of the Constitution, Austin argued, had forbidden a senator or representative to take a civil office that had been created or for which the salary had been increased during his term in Congress. Hugo Black was ineligible, this group contended, because he was a senator when an act was passed entitling Supreme Court justices to full pay after their retirement. Moreover, Justice Van Devanter had not resigned but only retired from active service; Austin and others insisted that Black would be filling a newly created post as the “tenth justice.” Supporters of the administration replied pointedly that no such objections had been raised when the Senate had previously urged Roosevelt to name Senator Robinson to the court.
On Monday, August 16, the full Judiciary Committee held a stormy hearing, closed to the public and the press. Reporters wrote afterward that tempers “flared to a white heat” and two members had to be restrained from a fist fight.
The Klan issue had been broached by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and by the Public Affairs Committee of the Socialist party in telegrams asking for an investigation of Black’s Klan relationship. Norman Thomas, chairman of the Socialist group, wanted the Senate also to explore Black’s silence on the famous Scottsboro case and his opposition to antilynching bills. But such calls were quietly ignored. Without raising the Klan issue and despite Republican cries of “steamroller,” the committee voted 13 to 4 to report the nomination favorably to the Senate.