Black, Hugo Lafayette

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 44

Hugo LaFayette Black was an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly thirty-four years, serving one of the longest and most influential terms in the history of the Court.

Black was born February 27, 1886, in Harlan, Alabama, the eighth child of a storekeeper and farmer. He was raised in rural Alabama and attended local schools. At the age of seventeen, Black entered Birmingham Medical College. He decided that he was more suited to the study of law, however, and left the college after one year to attend the University of Alabama Law School, where he received his bachelor of laws degree in 1906. In the same year, Black was admitted to the Alabama bar. He practiced briefly in Ashland, Alabama, near his childhood home. He then moved to Birmingham, where he quickly developed a successful practice in TORT, labor, and contract law. In 1911, he was appointed as judge on the Birmingham Police Court, but he resigned eighteen months later to return to private practice. In 1914, Black was elected county prosecutor for Jefferson County, Alabama, and gained local prominence for his investigation of brutal police tactics used to question suspects at the county jail. In 1917 Black resigned his position as prosecutor and enlisted in the Army. He remained in the United States and served as a captain of the artillery for a year. Then he resumed his private practice in Birmingham, where he frequently represented local workers in personal injury suits and served as an attorney for the local chapter of the United Mine Workers. In 1921 he married Josephine Foster, with whom he had three children.

In 1923 Black joined the Birmingham chapter of the KU KLUX KLAN (KKK). He remained a member for two years. He commented later that, at the time, he believed joining the group could further his political and professional career.

In 1926, Black, a Democrat, won a seat in the U.S. Senate, overcoming four other Democrats in the race. Black served in the Senate for nearly ten years and gained prominence as a tenacious and sometimes relentless investigator into the activities of Washington, D.C. lobbyists for PUBLIC UTILITIES. He was also a member of the SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE and a staunch supporter of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL legislation. A longtime supporter of organized labor, Black helped secure passage of the FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT of 1938 (29 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq.), which established a MINIMUM WAGE and a forty-hour work-week for enterprises in interstate commerce.

In August 1937, Black became Roosevelt's first appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, nominated to replace retiring justice WILLIS VAN DEVANTER. Initially, Black's nomination was met with some opposition. Some critics cited his relative lack of judicial experience; others expressed concern about his "judicial temperament," given the aggressive and even abrasive manner that he was said to display when interrogating witnesses while a senator. Black was nevertheless confirmed in October 1937, by a vote of 63?16. Shortly afterward came confirmation of rumors that had been circulating throughout Washington, D.C., about Black's KKK ties in the mid-1920s. The controversy died quickly after Black spoke about the matter in a radio address. He admitted that he had once been a member but maintained that he had resigned many years earlier and had disavowed any further association with the organization.


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