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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
The new justice, Newsweek declared, must accept responsibility for his silence during the Senate debate “and for the private advice confidentially but freely passed around Senate cloakrooms that he had no actual Klan ties, however much he owed the Klan for his first nomination and election to the Senate.” But the Nation , admitting that Black had been a political opportunist when he joined the Klan, drew a distinction between opportunism and bigotry. Black, it said, had had to fight his way up from the “ignorance and bigotry of the Southern masses” to national prominence with only rudimentary schooling and without benefit of the tradition either of western populism or of the New England Brahmin. The exposé, the Nation concluded, was an effort by “powerful oligarchical minorities,” led by William Randolph Hearst, to destroy Black’s usefulness on the bench and force Roosevelt to abandon his fight to liberalize the judiciary. The Christian Century said those who raised the furor “do not fear Black the Klansman as much as they hate Black the Inquisitor.”
Meanwhile, still in Europe, the central figure of the cause célèbre tried in vain to escape pursuing reporters. Tracked down in Paris, Justice and Mrs. Black moved to London, but found their hotel surrounded by newspapermen. London papers were filled with the Sprigle series, and thereby thousands of Britishers received their first knowledge of the Ku Klux Klan. There were many notable visitors in London that season after the coronation of King George VI, but the most attention was centered upon the Blacks.
Toughened by years of experience in courtrooms, political campaigns, and Senate debates, Black was accustomed to the glare of the limelight—to pressure, harsh criticism, and a constant entourage of reporters. But his sensitive wife, Josephine, found it a searing experience. When the Blacks were unexpectedly accosted by a newspaperman in a dim hotel corridor, she was badly frightened.
On September 20 Justice and Mrs. Black eluded reporters long enough to board the mail steamer City of Norfolk , bound for that out-of-the-way Virginia port. Their names were not on the passenger list, for they had originally planned to return to New York aboard the S. S. Manhattan , on which three United States senators and another Supreme Court justice, James C. McReynolds, would have been fellow passengers.
As the City of Norfolk made its way west, the Gallup Poll reported that fifty-nine per cent of the Americans whom it interviewed thought the Justice should resign if it were proved that he had been a Klan member. Roosevelt told another press conference that he knew only what he had read in the newspapers and that there was nothing to say until Justice Black returned. When the President left for an extended tour of western states, his critics charged that he was trying to avoid Black.
The reporters at the Norfolk pier found the Justice outwardly cheerful and unperturbed. Among them was Sprigle himself, conspicuous in his customary western-style hat. Justice Black said he appreciated “this great reception,” and added only: “When I have any statement to make that’s definite and final on any subject, I will make it in such a way that I cannot be misquoted, and that the nation can hear me.”
During his European trip, Black had apparently decided to present his reply over the radio, which would assure him of a direct confrontation with the American people, one that could not be slanted by writers for opposition newspapers.
With the help of his brother-in-law and a close friend, Black composed his speech. Three nationwide networks cleared thirty minutes of time on the evening of October i for an unprecedented address by a Supreme Court justice on a controversial topic. The listening audience was estimated to be second only to that which had heard Edward VIII renounce the throne of Great Britain a year earlier. “Black radio parties” were held in many homes, and a few fiery crosses burned on northern hillsides.
Black spoke from the living room of a friend’s modest home in a Washington suburb. Several couples, the women in long evening gowns, sat in an adjoining dining room; about one hundred curious onlookers gathered outside. Seated before a cluster of microphones, Black showed no outward sign of nervousness, although Jim Parley said the Justice was in “as tough a spot as any man in public life has ever faced.” The speech lasted only eleven minutes. In contrast to his vigorous Senate style, Black spoke deliberately, as if measuring each word. Press accounts mentioned his “soft Southern voice” and his “Alabama drawl.”
Black said he was breaking Supreme Court precedent because this was an “extraordinary occasion.” He condemned what he called a “concerted campaign” to revive prejudice and religious bigotry by trying to convince Americans that he was intolerant of minority groups. He affirmed his belief in the religious guarantees of the Bill of Rights and insisted that his Senate record refuted every implication of intolerance.