Hugo Black was born on February 27, 1886, in Ashland, a small city in Alabama. Situated near the Appalachian Mountains, Ashland was an impoverished rural area. The youngest child of a big family, Hugo only briefly attended high school. After his brother, Orlando, went to medical school, Hugo decided to also become a doctor. His career at medical school wasn’t noteworthy, so he left in pursuit of law. After obtaining a law degree from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he ventured out on his own and started a private practice in 1906.
His career in Ashland as a lawyer floundered, so he struck out and embarked on a new practice in Birmingham, Alabama. While there, he defended many people, mostly in cases involving personal injury and labor law. In a career-defining moment, Hugo Black defended an African American in a case that would catch the attention of Judge A.O. Lane.
A few years later, in 1911, Judge Lane was elected as a City Commissioner in Birmingham. He had befriended Black earlier and persuaded him to take the job of police court judge. Black held that position for about a year before resigning in 1912 to return to practicing law. Two years later in 1914, he became a prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County, Alabama.
1914 is notable for the beginning of World War I on July 28, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The United States resisted entering the war for three years, but it joined the fight in 1917. Black resigned as prosecuting attorney that year and joined the military, where he was eventually promoted to captain of the 81st Field Infantry. Although he never saw combat in Europe, his military experience stayed with him for the rest of his life.
After the war, Black resumed law. He also married Josephine Foster in 1921 and had three children with her over the course of the next decade. They were married until her death in 1951.
While he grew his family in the 1920s, he also entered the most controversial period of his life. Sometime around 1924, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, the notorious white supremacist group. The KKK was well ingrained the south at the time, and Birmingham was no exception. Although Black’s opinions remain obscure, little evidence exists that he played a large role in the KKK. He supposedly only attended a few meetings, and his membership in the Klan lasted a little over two years. He resigned from the KKK around the time he decided to run for the US Senate.
At the time, the Democratic Party was the dominant force in the south. Black, a Democrat, defeated his Republican opponent and won a decisive victory by nearly 81 percent of the vote. Six years later, in 1932, he won his re-election with a staggering 86 percent of the vote.
As a Democrat, he was an ardent supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt attempted to rebuild the country and the economy in the midst of the Great Depression with millions of Americans out of work, homeless and starving. He tried to counter the depression with the New Deal, legislation designed to increase deficit spending. By using tax dollars for public works, the New Deal helped millions of Americans get back on their feet.
It was, of course, controversial. Many politicians rejected it. Some even denounced Roosevelt as a tyrant engaging in overreach. Black was a vocal supporter of the New Deal, and his vote helped to pass the legislation.
As a senator, he spent much of his time championing labor, including co-sponsoring a law that would establish a minimum wage. He also spent his time working on education bills and judicial reform. He was a student of the US Constitution and traveled the country giving speeches on Constitutional matters, enjoining Americans to take a textual analysis approach to the Constitution. Instead of reading it literally, Black felt the Constitution should be interpreted and understood in light of other documents, including private letters and essays authored by the Founding Fathers.
He established himself as a savvy politician and also a controversial one. He supported Roosevelt’s plan to revamp the court system. Critics accused Roosevelt of aiming to pack the courts with judges sympathetic to Democrats and the New Deal. This plan ultimately failed, but Black didn’t suffer any serious political consequences for supporting it.
Another controversy arose when Congress attempted to pass legislation outlawing or banning the public lynching of mostly African Americans. To the disgust of many Americans — and journalists — Black was reported as having smiled and essentially celebrated the defeat of an anti-lynching legislation.
During his time in the US Senate, Black-headed several committees. Using his political savvy, he employed these committees as political tools by advocating for changes and reforms through his hearings and works on these committees. His actions impressed Roosevelt. He was a politician with an impressive Democratic voting record, an ardent supporter of the New Deal and labor laws, and with an ability to shape narratives and sway public opinions through his acts as a senator.
In 1937, Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter retired, offering Roosevelt the opportunity to appoint his first Supreme Court Justice. Although the President floated a few names, he ultimately settled on Hugo Black. The confirmation didn’t go smoothly, however. Since Black had a past rooted in bigotry, and when his membership in the KKK came to light, the Senate referred Black to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a move that hadn’t occurred in nearly a century. The Judiciary Committee ultimately confirmed Black’s appointment on August 16, 1937.
As a Constitutionalist, Black believed in expanding executive powers and limiting the reach of the legislative and judicial branches. He believed the Constitution should be read in the light of its framers and shouldn’t be adapted to the growing complexities of American society. As a Supreme Court Justice, he advocated restraining the court’s abilities to hear matters of economic and even social importance. He also played a crucial role in striking down earlier court cases, which paved the way for upholding key parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Black also argued for restraining the judicial branch from overreach. He felt the court’s place was in interpreting laws, not writing them.
He remarried in 1957, six years after the death of his first wife. Although a strongly opinionated man, he often opted to live a quiet life, shunning the notion of fame and refraining from seeking public attention. He died a few days after retiring from the Supreme Court in 1971 after suffering a stroke at the age of 85.
Throughout his long career, Justice Black injected his opinions in cases ranging from labor law to the First Amendment. Although he made friends as well as foes throughout his tenure on the court, he never created controversies too deep to escape. His brief time in the KKK continued to dog him, though, and he found himself answering for it for the rest of his life.