Printer Friendly

Hugo Black: A Biography.

Finally, there is a complete biographical picture of an icon of American journalism, the First Amendment absolutist, Associate Justice Hugo Lafayette Black of the United States Supreme Court. But iconography was not on my mind when my wife, Josephine, and I picked him up at the court for drinks and dinner during Christmas break of our Nieman year, 1967-68.

I said, "Judge, you've been on the court for about 30 years now. Surely, you have a different view of the institution than you did in the Senate when you supported Roosevelt's notorious court-packing scheme."

"Funny you should ask me that," he replied mildly. "I had some of those old Senate speeches out not long ago, looking them over. I didn't see anything in them I could disagree with - of course, I might have purified the language some." Ever the patient teacher with his clerks and young Alabamians with the faintest glimmer of liberality, he explained that the size of the court is not specified in the Constitution and had varied over the years.

The merry, unpretentious man who befriended Josephine and me is recognizable in Roger Newman's work, but that is only one of many aspects of his character and personality. Inevitably, it is a portrait of a complex and fascinating man.

The man who emerges from the 710 pages of text and notes seems to be a series of contradictions - a civil libertarian and a Ku Klux Klansman, a judicial pioneer and a strict constructionist, a populist who set strict limits on political protest - contradictions anchored to an overriding purpose: the articulation and defense of the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

Roger Newman's work is a welcome addition to the shelf of books about Black: from Irving Dilliard's revealing collection of the judge's opinions, "One Man's Stand for Freedom," to James Simon's account in "The Antagonists" of how the Alabama country boy won the battle for dominance of the Court against the Harvard Solomon, Justice Felix Frankfurter; and finally the judge's widow, Elizabeth, who added her charming perspective in "Mr. Justice and Mrs. Black." Among the surprises unearthed by Newman, a research scholar at New York University School of Law, was the judge's strong presidential ambitions and his more active role in the Ku Klux Klan than any previous biographer has disclosed.

Black was an inveterate "joiner" and the Ku Klux Klan was one among his many clubs, although he hesitated for a year before accepting membership in Robert E. Lee Klavern No. 1, the largest and most politically powerful unit in Alabama. From 1923 to 1925, he marched in parades, wore the regalia and attended and spoke at meetings around the state. Once, when the Klavern debated whether to whip a man, Black objected and threatened to resign. When the motion passed, Black left in protest, but didn't actually resign until some time later.

Newman devotes an entire chapter to a celebrated murder case in which Black defended a Methodist minister who murdered a Catholic priest. The priest was killed during a fight triggered by the priest's presiding at the marriage of the minister's daughter to a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. By today's standards, the trial reeks of prejudice. The case, tried shortly before Black joined the Klan, might be seen as evidence that Black was tainted by the prejudices of his time, but the testimony of a whole life contradicts that judgment.

For instance, as a young Birmingham city court judge years before, he found a black man not guilty of beating a collection agent. The strong-arm bill collector had tried to repossess the black man's furniture - including the bed where his sick wife lay - even though the man had already paid $94 for $50 worth of furniture.

As late as 1948, he took soundings about how to run for president. That was the year the South began slipping away from the Democratic Party on the race issue. After Black joined in the court's unanimous Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, all hopes of the presidency were snuffed out.

Though he failed in his ultimate ambition, this man from rural Alabama roots who skipped college and went straight to law school at the University of Alabama dominated the court in his time. Justice Frankfurter believed the law was handed down from the majesty of British jurisprudence and based many of his opinions on what would or would not "shock the conscience." The Alabamian, in Bridges v. California, made a judicial declaration of independence, asserting that the liberties of Americans, free speech chief among them, could not be curbed - not even by judges. He thought opinions based on "shocked conscience" were an excuse for judge-made law. For his own opinions he researched debates in Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was also persuaded by the plain language of the Constitution, "Congress shall make no law."

Newman gives us a richly detailed account of an extraordinary life - an epic intellectual journey, a story of a man who loved the law and his home state of Alabama. It is a story of unrequited love, because he was misunderstood and reviled by the people of Alabama. It is a measure of the greatness of his spirit that he returned their hatred with understanding and affection.

Brandt Ayers, Nieman Fellow 1968, is Editor/Publisher of The Anniston (Alabama) Star.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Harvard University, Nieman Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ayers, Brandt
Publication:Nieman Reports
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Previous Article:Temptations of a Superpower.
Next Article:China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming A Culture.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters