Hugo Black and the K.K.K.

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While Justice and Mrs. Black were abroad, an enterprising reporter, Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , assisted by a large expense account and private detectives, was in Alabama searching into Black’s political past. Sprigle’s inquiries led him to the former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, James Esdale, recently disbarred from the practice of law in Alabama and by this time also estranged from the Klan. As evidence that Black had actually been a member, Esdale showed Sprigle the note of resignation. Handwritten and dated July 9, 1925, it read: “Dear Sir Klansman, Beg to tender you herewith my resignation as a member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, effective from this date on. Yours I.T.S.U.B. Hugo L. Black.” In Klan parlance, the initials stood for “In the Sacred, Unfailing Bond.”

Sprigle also wangled from Esdale’s files a stenographic transcript of the proceedings of the 1926 Klorero at which Democratic nominees Black and Graves had spoken and had been presented with Klan “grand passports.” The transcript contained the full text of Black’s “thank you” speech to the Alabama Klan. “I realize,” the future Supreme Court justice was quoted as saying, “that I was elected by men who believe in the principles that I have sought to advocate and which are the principles of this organization.”

In a series of six syndicated articles which began on September 13, 1937, Sprigle dramatically displayed his evidence for the nation to read. Newspapers all over the country spread across their front pages Sprigle’s sensational accusation that the new justice “is a member of the hooded brotherhood that for ten long, blood-drenched years ruled the Southland with lash and noose and torch.” To justify this bold statement, Sprigle contended that the note of resignation was a deliberate ruse, designed to protect the Klan’s political candidate from criticism by Catholic and Jewish voters and other anti-Klan forces. Furthermore, Sprigle claimed that by accepting the “grand passport,” Black had, in effect, accepted life membership in the Klan.

“That the White House was stunned by the exposé,” wrote one Washington observer, “is putting it mildly. From the President down, the inner circle was astounded and frightened.” Roosevelt was described as angry and embarrassed, but when a Cabinet member urged the President to clear himself by saying that he would not have named Black if he had known of the Klan membership, Roosevelt refused. He would play for time, he said, and await public reaction.

The President confided to Ickes that it had never occurred to him to ask Black about any such connection. In his diary Ickes recorded that F. D. R., an open foe of the Klan since the Democratic convention of 1924, was now in the position of having either “deliberately or carelessly” named a Klan member to the Supreme Court. “There is no doubt that this incident is very bad for the President,” Ickes wrote. “There has been nothing like it.”

With Senator Burton K. Wheeler, Democrat of Montana, demanding a presidential investigation, Roosevelt reviewed his plight with Ickes and Borah. They agreed that Klan membership was not grounds for impeachment and that the President had no more right to investigate a member of the Supreme Court than to investigate a member of the Senate. Roosevelt suggested that Black make a statement after his return from Europe; if he cleared himself in the mind of the public, he should remain on the court.

On September 14, with interest in the Sprigle series running high, Roosevelt faced the press. The President denied that he had known of Black’s membership in the Klan before nominating him. His brief No was so emphatic that one reporter described it as a categorical denial and another as a “terse negative.”

Belatedly, reporters found that the two witnesses whom Senator Burke had offered to produce were both special assistants to Attorney General Cummings himself. One, Black’s former law partner, William E. Fort, refused to comment. The other, Walter S. Brower, denied that he himself was a Klansman.

Vacationing senators were tracked down and asked whether they would have voted for Black if they had known of his former membership. Some said they had been “misled”; others passed it off as a “tempest in a teapot.” Borah, with difficulty, attempted to clarify his original statement, declaring he had not meant to tell the Senate that Black had never been a Klansman, but simply that he was not a member now.

Hundreds of other Americans joined the furor. William Alien White now said Roosevelt had “dishonored” the high court, but Senator George W. Norris continued to insist that it was a “wonderfully good appointment.” Ickes, confronted by the press, produced an embarrassed administration’s most adroit counterthrust: “I really think the greatest expert on the Ku Klux Klan is [President] Hoover. I refer you to him. He accepted their support. Nobody criticized him.” Critics of Roosevelt and the New Deal—cartoonists in particular—had a field day. The President was criticized for not having sought advice before the nomination, and Black was castigated for not revealing his Klan connection to Roosevelt or the Senate.