Hugo Black Biography

(Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Birthday: February 27, 1886 (Pisces)

Born In: Ashland, Alabama, United States

Hugo Black was an American lawyer, politician, and jurist who was elected as a Senator from Alabama for two terms in 1926 and 1932, before being appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He eagerly supported all of Roosevelt's 24 major New Deal programs as a Senator and upheld many New Deal laws as an Associate Justice. He became known for his advocacy of a textualist approach to constitutional interpretation, and took a literal or absolutist approach to the First Amendment and the provisions of the Bill of Rights. Early on in his career, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama and harbored anti-Catholic sentiments, which later came back to haunt him after journalist Ray Sprigle exposed his past in his 'Pulitzer Prize'-winning report on Black in the 'Pittsburgh Post-Gazette'. Nevertheless, he was one of the most influential Supreme Court justices in the 20th century and became the fifth longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Hugo Lafayette Black

Died At Age: 85


Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Seay DeMeritte (m. 1957), Josephine Foster (m. 1921–1951)

father: William Lafayette Black

mother: Martha (Toland) Black

siblings: Orlando Black

Born Country: United States

Judges Political Leaders

Died on: September 25, 1971

Cause of Death: Stroke

U.S. State: Alabama

More Facts

education: Ashland College, University of Alabama; Birmingham, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (LLB)

Childhood & Early Life
Hugo LaFayette Black was born on February 27, 1886, in a small wooden farmhouse in Harlan, Alabama, United States, as the youngest of eight children of William Lafayette Black and Martha Black. His father, a one-time Confederate soldier and a modest store owner, moved the family to Ashland, Alabama, when Hugo was three years old.
At seventeen, he left Ashland College and enrolled at Birmingham Medical School, following his older brother Orlando, but later followed his suggestion and enrolled at the University of Alabama School of Law instead. He completed his graduation in June 1906 and subsequently established legal practice at his home city of Ashland, but due to a lack of clients, moved back to Birmingham in 1907.
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Early Career
Hugo Black specialized in labor law and personal injury cases, and successfully defended an African-American who was forced into a form of commercial slavery after incarceration, which earned him the friendship of judge A. O. Lane. After Lane was elected to the Birmingham City Commission in 1911, he asked Hugo to serve as a police court judge for the city of Birmingham.
About 18 months later, he resigned and returned to practicing law full-time, and gained popularity representing poor African-Americans, striking miners and other industrial laborers. He eventually decided to seek political office, and in 1914, was elected prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County.
He resigned three years later to join the United States Army during World War I, and had reached the rank of captain serving in the 81st Field Artillery. He returned to practice in 1918 and won sensational cases like the trial of a Methodist minister for murdering a Catholic priest, which he argued was in self-defense.
Senate Career
Determined to advance his political career, Hugo Black joined the Ku Klux Klan on September 11, 1923, and marched in parades and spoke at nearly 150 meetings, dressed in the white Klan uniform. At the beginning of his campaign for Alabama senator in 1925, he sent his resignation to the Klan, even though he maintained good relations with its leaders.
Because of his humble roots and his image as a sympathizer to the common people, he easily defeated his Republican opponent E. H. Dryer in the Democratic-party dominated state in 1926. He was re-elected to the Senate again in 1932 against Republican J. Theodore Johnson, and during his two terms, gained a reputation as a tenacious investigator.
In 1934, he chaired the committee investigating the contracts awarded to air mail carriers, and in 1935, he chaired the committee investigating lobbying activities of public utilities. While he fought for legislation to ensure fair labor and minimum wage, his liberal record was marred by his battle against anti-lynching legislation and his attempt to reduce immigration.
Hugo Black, who became chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor in 1935, was an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt and his New Deal, and even supported his 'court-packing' plan. When Justice Willis Van Devanter retired, he became Roosevelt's preferred choice as he had supported all 24 of his major New Deal programs.
Supreme Court Career
Roosevelt nominated Hugo Black to the Supreme Court on August 12, 1937, and though he was expected to be confirmed without debate, the Senate departed from tradition and referred the nomination to the Judiciary Committee. While rumors surfaced about his Klan membership, no conclusive evidence was available at the time, which made way for his confirmation by 63-16 votes on August 18, 1937.
Just a few weeks later, it created an outrage when a report in the 'Pittsburgh Post-Gazette' by journalist Ray Sprigle confirmed his past involvement with Ku Klux Klan, featuring his 1925 resignation letter as proof. Many Senators claimed that they would have voted differently if they were aware of this fact, and even Roosevelt denied having prior knowledge of his KKK membership.

Hugo Black subsequently made a radio statement on October 1, 1937, addressing 50 million Americans, in which he accepted joining the Klan in the past, but claimed that he had severed ties with the group long ago. He also asserted that he counts many members of the colored race among his friends, and that he had appointed blacks, Jews and Catholics in his service.
His speech was successful enough to mitigate calls for his impeachment or resignation, and throughout the course of his career, he became a prominent champion of civil liberties and civil rights.
As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, he advocated judicial restraint, helped reverse several earlier court decisions and facilitated the passing of many New Deal laws that would otherwise have been struck down.
He became known for his literalist interpretation of the First Amendment and believed that it erected a metaphorical wall of separation between church and state. He also believed that the entirety of the federal Bill of Rights was applicable to the states as per the Fourteenth Amendment.
Hugo Black, who was the Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1946 to 1971, often voted alongside colleague William O. Douglas, while often having ideological clashes with other colleague Felix Frankfurter. He became involved in a bitter dispute with Justice Robert H. Jackson during the mid-1940s, and later on in his career, disagreed on several issues with John Marshall Harlan II.
Family & Personal Life
Hugo Black's first marriage was on February 23, 1921, to Josephine Foster, with whom he had three children: son Hugo L. Black, II and daughters Sterling Foster and Martha Josephine. His wife died in 1951, following which he married Elizabeth Seay DeMeritte in 1957.
He fell ill and admitted himself to the hospital in August 1971 and subsequently retired from the Court on September 17, 1971. He suffered stroke two days later and died on September 25, 1971, following which his services were held at the National Cathedral and his remains were interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Hugo Black appeared on the cover of 'Time Magazine' twice; first as a US Senator in 1935 and then as an Associate Justice in 1964. In 1986, he appeared on the Great Americans series of postage stamps issued by the United States Postal Service.
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