The Controversy of Justice Hugo Black

In 1937, the Supreme Court finally gave way to FDR’s policies in two ways. First, they ruled that Washington state’s minimum wage was constitutional in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937). Second, Willis Van Devanter, one of the court’s “Four Horsemen” who repeatedly voted to strike down New Deal laws, called it quits. As his replacement, Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Senator Hugo Black of Alabama. Black was one of the most passionate advocates of the New Deal and had repeatedly fought to curb the influence of corporate lobbying on American politics, at times in ways that attracted widespread criticism. He had also been one of the few senators to come out strongly for and fully believe in FDR’s “court-packing plan”. Unlike the nomination fights of today, Black’s ultimate confirmation was a pretty sure thing: it is difficult to see a period in American history where conservatives were weaker than in the 75th Congress. Republican representation in the Senate had been reduced to less than 20, and New Deal Democrats could easily best whatever alliance Republicans and reluctant Democrats could muster. However, a controversy would arise aside from partisanship about this justice.

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Hugo L. Black (1886-1971)

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan hit its peak in membership. Both the Republican and Democratic parties had their pro and anti-Klan wings that battled it out in state primaries. In 1926, Hugo Black had been elected to the Senate with the support of the Klan. His predecessor, the more conservative Minority Leader Oscar Underwood, was an avowed opponent of the KKK and fought for the insertion of an anti-Klan plank in the Democratic Party platform in 1924. He knew this would come at the cost of his career, so he didn’t bother running for reelection. Black had not only gained the support of the Klan…he had also been a member. In the Senate Black had opposed anti-lynching legislation (which made him no different than any senator from the former Confederacy). While the NAACP during his confirmation hearings was bringing up his Klan membership, most of the opposition against him came from opponents of the New Deal. When the Senate voted on his nomination, he was easily confirmed 68-16. The opponents consisted strictly of New Deal foes. Immediately after the confirmation a newspaper expose by journalist Ray Sprigle was released about Black’s membership, proving that he had been a member from 1923 to 1925. He publicly admitted that he had been a member but stated that he had not participated in any of its activities, and many senators stated afterward that they would not have voted for him had they known of his former membership. Sprigle won a Pulitzer Prize for the story and Black entered his first session of the court through the basement, as hundreds of protestors stood outside the court with black armbands.

Although there has been controversy about Justice Black’s views on Catholics and Catholicism influencing his decisions on restricting school prayer, he took a distinctly different turn on civil rights as he joined the rest of the court in decisions striking down school segregation. Black also became known as one of the court’s staunch liberals on the First Amendment, arguing for an absolutist view and was easily one of the 20th century’s most influential justices. He would sit on the court until 1971, retiring only eight days before his death.


Confirmation of Hugo Black as Associate Justice. Govtrack.

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Eschner, K. (2017, February 27). This Supreme Court Justice was a KKK Member. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Hugo L. Black. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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