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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
Then came the admission his audience was waiting for. “I did join the Klan,” said Justice Black. “I never rejoined. What appeared then, or what appears now on the records of that organization, I do not know.” He said he had never considered the “unsolicited card” as a “membership of any kind” in the Klan. “I never used it. I did not even keep it.” Black said he had dropped the Klan before becoming a senator and had had nothing to do with it since. He told his audience he had many friends among Catholics, Jews, and Negroes. Concluding, the Justice declared firmly:”… my discussion of this question is closed.”
On the following day, public opinion began to make itself heard. Newspapers opposed to the President almost universally criticized the speech, calling it “too damned clever” and “the plea of a man caught with the goods.” Even the pro-administration New York Post, commenting on Black’s claim to many Catholic, Jewish, and Negro friends, remarked acidly: “We might reply in kind that one of our best liberal friends was a Klansman but we still don’t think he ought to be on the Supreme Court.”
But the Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser , once Black’s foe, commented that his critics “do not give a hoot whether he was a Klansman or a Hottentot in 1925. They hate him because he was a Rooseveltian.” John L. Lewis said the speech was “powerful and straightforward,” but Norman Thomas regretted that Black had failed “openly and manfully” to repudiate the Klan. One of Black’s friends told Farley that the Justice had decided that to repudiate the Klan would be “throwing down” many who had helped him in Alabama.
It was reported that Roosevelt, in Fort Lewis, Washington, 2,440 miles away from the White House, did not hear the speech because his car had no radio. But “the man in the street,” to whom the speech had been aimed, was believed to have been favorably impressed. As the President told Farley: “It was a grand job. It did the trick. You just wait and see.” Late in October, a national poll reported that only forty-four per cent of Americans still thought Black should resign.
Three days after the speech, Black made his first appearance on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, whose own nomination had once been opposed by Senator Black, greeted the new member cordially in the robing room. With Hughes sat associate justices whose philosophies and decisions had been scathingly criticized by Senator Black. Before the court were two petitions that Justice Black be barred on the constitutional grounds raised in the Senate.
Perhaps to avoid the possibility of a sensational challenge in the open courtroom, Justice Black did not choose to repeat the judicial oath publicly. Since the new member had been confirmed and had already taken both his oaths, Chief Justice Hughes considered the matter closed and planned merely to take the protests under advisement.
In view of some three hundred spectators who packed the chamber, Justice Hugo La Fayette Black, his face inscrutable, ascended the steps and took his place on the high bench.