- NAME: Hugo Black
- OCCUPATION: Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, U.S. Representative
- BIRTH DATE: February 27, 1886
- DEATH DATE: September 25, 1971
- Did You Know?: Hugo Black was the first of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Supreme Court appointees.
- EDUCATION: University of Alabama School of Law
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Harlan, Alabama
- PLACE OF DEATH: Bethesda, Maryland
- Full Name: Hugo Lafayette Black
- AKA: Hugo Black
- AKA: Hugo L. Black
Best Known For
Hugo Black was a 20th century attorney, senator and Supreme Court justice known for both his former membership in the KKK and his pro-Civil Rights rulings.
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Born on February 27, 1886, in Harlan, Alabama, Hugo Black pursued a law career before becoming a U.S. Senator. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with outrage ensuing over Black’s former membership with the Ku Klux Klan. Black served on the court for 34 years, known for his ardent support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He died on September 25, 1971.
"Under our constitutional system, courts stand, against any winds that blow, as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are nonconforming victims of prejudice and public excitement."
"Seventy years ago, when I was a boy, perhaps no one who knew me thought I would ever get beyond the confines of the small country county in which I was born. There was no reason for them to suspect that I would. But we had a free country and the way was open to me."
"My view is, without deviation, without any ifs, buts, or whereases, that freedom of speech means that you shall not do something to people whether for the views they have or the views they express or the words they speak or write."
Hugo Lafayette Black was born on February 27, 1886, in Harlan, Alabama, the youngest child of a large family. He didn't graduate from high school, yet, after a stint studying medicine, he decided to pursue law, attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Upon graduating, Phi Betta Kappa, from the school in 1906, he worked as a lawyer in Ashland and then Birmingham, where he was also a police court magistrate. He was later elected Jefferson County prosecutor, and served in World War I.
In the early 1920s, Black joined the Ku Klux Klan, a Southern-based racial/religious terrorist group that dominated Birmingham's labor movements at the time. Black allegedly attended few meetings and later spoke on his reasons for joining in a 1967 interview with The New York Times. He resigned after two years' membership right before entering the U.S. Senatorial elections. Black won a seat in 1926 and became a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies.
Roosevelt eventually nominated Hugo Black to the Supreme Court, with Black confirmed and taking his seat in 1937. Black's KKK membership was revealed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with the articles asserting that he still belonged to the organization. Black spoke about the allegations in a radio address and denied continued membership. Media and public outrage nonetheless ensued.
Black became known for his steadfast devotion to and literal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as well as rulings that would overall be considered liberal, though markedly non-progressive ideology could also be found. He supported the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II in Korematsu v. U.S. (1944), yet had reversed the convictions of tortured African-American farmers in Chambers v. Florida (1940). He dissented in the upholding of McCarthyism in the Dennis v. U.S. (1951) case, and later espoused the separation of church and state in the rulings for Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and Engel v. Vitale (1962).
Black was also part of the unanimous court decision declaring school racial segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). During the 1960s, Black found that many of his ideas on the Bill of Rights and individual liberties, which had been part of the dissenting opinion in court rulings, would actually become the court's majority opinion. In his later years on the court, Black was known for his dissenting opinion on the right to protest in public spaces and in public schools during class hours.
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