Hugo Black

Hugo Black Biography

Lawyer, U.S. Representative, Supreme Court Justice (1886–1971)
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.


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.

Education and Early Career

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.

KKK Membership

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.

Appointed to Supreme Court

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).

Part of 'Brown v. Board of Education'

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.

Personal Life and Death

Black wed Josephine Foster in the winter of 1921, with the couple going on to have three children. Foster died in 1951, and in 1957, Black wed his secretary, Mary Elizabeth Seay DeMeritte.

Black fell ill in the summer of 1971, and shortly thereafter, retired from the bench after almost three and a half decades of service. After suffering a stroke, he died on September 25, 1971, at the age of 85, in Bethesda, Maryland.

Works on his life include Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution (2005) and Mr. Justice and Mrs. Black: The Memoirs of Hugo L. Black and Elizabeth Black (1986).

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