Hugo Lafayette Black

The American jurist Hugo Lafayette Black (1886-1971) was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Associate Justice Black was an ardent New Dealer and led the liberal and activist wing of the Court for more than 32 years.

The youngest in a family of eight, Hugo Black was born on a farm in the rural area of Clay County, Ala., on Feb. 27, 1886. The family, well off by rural standards, moved to Ashland, the county seat, so that the children would have better educational opportunities. Hugo attended Ashland College. Interested in law, at the age of 18 he enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School at Tuscaloosa. After 2 years he received his law degree and passed the bar examinations.

After a year of practice in Ashland, Black moved his office to Birmingham. In 1917 he became county prosecuting attorney. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the Army. He received a captain's commission and served with several artillery units until his discharge in 1919. He resumed his law practice in Birmingham, and his reputation, as attorney for the United Mine Workers union and other unions, grew as the result of the high damages he won for his clients.

In 1921 Black joined the Birmingham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, for political reasons, not because of a belief in the Klan's principles. His record as the prosecuting attorney of Birmingham is studded with examples of leniency toward African American defendants. Black resigned from the Klan in 1925, the year he announced he would run for the U.S. Senate.

Campaigning on a platform that called for aid to farmers, enforcement of prohibition, help to veterans, and immigration restrictions, Black won the seat. During his first term in the Senate he supported the efforts of Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska to keep Muscle Shoals dams for public use. Both President Coolidge and President Hoover, however, vetoed legislation that would have made Muscle Shoals a government project. Black's dream came true when President Roosevelt, in 1933, signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The 1932 election, which Franklin Roosevelt won, also saw Black reelected to the Senate. During Roosevelt's first term Black supported him on most New Deal major measures. Black supported the reelection of Roosevelt in 1936 and in 1937 backed the President's court-packing plan. Black also conducted a series of major investigations into lobbying activities, ship subsidies, and trusts.

With the resignation of Associate Justice Willis Van Devanter in 1937, President Roosevelt made Black his first appointment to the Supreme Court. The decision caused a national furor. Opposition came from conservative Democrats and Republicans who did not wish to see one of the most zealous Roosevelt supporters elected to the highest tribunal. The Senate nevertheless confirmed his appointment in August 1937.

Black's career on the Court proved him a champion of individual liberty. On the Court only 3 years, he wrote the majority decision in Chambers v. Florida (1940), which demonstrated that he had never followed the Klan line. The case concerned the conviction of four African Americans for murder based on confessions obtained under third-degree conditions. The Court, led by Black, nullified the decision. In the same year Black wrote the majority decision in Smith v. Texas, a case concerning an African American who the Court declared had not received a fair trial because no attempt had been made to appoint African Americans to the jury.

Consistently a supporter of the guarantees in the 1st and 5th Amendments to the Constitution, Black was in conflict with Justice Felix Frankfurter. By early 1941 this opposition was shown in the vigorous decision that Black wrote opposing the right of state courts to prohibit picketing. Black continued to show concern for 1st Amendment guarantees when he rendered the majority decision in Marsh v. Alabama (1946), asserting that the Jehovah's Witnesses could not be prevented from freely distributing their religious literature.

Benchmark cases in which Black wrote the majority decisions are legion. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Black held for the majority that taxpayers' money could be used to transport pupils to parochial schools. However, he declared that more direct aid to parochial schools was not permissible under the 1st Amendment. In Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company et al. v. Sawyer (1952), Black declared that President Truman's seizure of the steel industry was beyond the chief executive's powers.

One historic decision written by Black inaugurated the expression "one man one vote." In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), Black ruled that "as nearly as practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's." The Supreme Court thus moved into the area of apportioning congressional districts.

Black married Josephine Patterson Foster, the daughter of a Birmingham physician, shortly after he resumed his law practice, following his discharge from the Army. Two sons and one daughter were born to them. Black's first wife died in 1951 and in 1957 he married his secretary, Elizabeth Seay De Meritte. On Sept. 25, 1971, Black died in Bethesda, Md.

Throughout his career on the high bench Black revealed that he was one of the most vigorous supporters of civil rights in the history of the Court. He failed to vote for the protection of basic civil rights in only a few instances. His decision in Korematsu v. United States (1945), for example, supported President Roosevelt's executive order authorizing the creation of military areas from which Americans of Japanese descent were excluded.

Black indicated in many cases he decided that some problems must be resolved ultimately by legislative bodies. However, he quickly struck down legislative or executive action which attacked fundamental freedoms. John P. Frank wrote in the Yale Law Journal in 1956: "In general, he [Black] has preached the doctrine that government should at the same time be both all-powerful and all-weak…."

Further Reading on Hugo Lafayette Black

Although its early publication date causes it to miss some of the highlights of Black's career, Charlotte Williams, Hugo L. Black: A Study in the Judicial Process (1950), is a satisfying, frank, and concise biography. Hugo Black and the Supreme Court: A Symposium, edited by Stephen Parks Strickland (1967), is a useful study which examines all aspects of his career. John P. Frank, Mr. Justice Black: The Man and His Opinions (1949), sees Black as a liberal who furthered the New Deal. The best book on Black's civil liberties decisions is Irving Dilliard, ed., One Man's Stand for Freedom: Mr. Justice Black and the Bill of Rights, a Collection of His Supreme Court Decisions (1963). An excellent study of contrasts is Wallace Mendelson, Justices Black and Frankfurter: Conflict in the Court (1961; 2d ed. 1966). Leo Pfeffer, This Honorable Court: A History of the United States Supreme Court (1965), is a good background study.

Additional Biography Sources

Ball, Howard, Hugo L. Black: cold steel warrior, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ball, Howard, Of power and right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's constitutional revolution, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Black, Hugo LaFayette, Mr. Justice and Mrs. Black: the memoirs of Hugo L. Black and Elizabeth Black, New York: Random House, 1986.

Dunne, Gerald T., Hugo Black and the judicial revolution, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Freyer, Tony Allan, Hugo L. Black and the dilemma of American liberalism, Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education, 1990.

Magee, James J., Mr. Justice Black, absolutist on the Court, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Newman, Roger K., Hugo Black: a biography, New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Silverstein, Mark, Constitutional faiths: Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, and the process of judicial decision making, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Simon, James F., The antagonists: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter and civil liberties in modern America, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.