Should his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan disqualify this Supreme Court nominee?
I was on the revenue cutter off Norfolk, along with about seventy-five reporters and photographers who had converged on the pleasant Virginia seaport to surround a man finally trapped. I marveled at how little rancor the quarry showed when he met the newspapermen. In the cabin, before he went on deck to confront the cameras and notebooks, he told me with amusement how he had been hounded in London by American reporters. That very morning I watched his unperturbed cheerfulness survive even the efforts of a photographer outside his cabin to poke his camera between the slats at the bottom of the door; he wished, I suppose, to preserve for posterity a pictorial record of the legs of those inside. Although in his statement Justice Black hit at the distortions of the press, he somehow made the reporters understand that his quarrel was not with them but with their bosses. And two days later he made his radio audience of some thirty million understand why he was talking directly to them. The idea of using the radio was one which had come to him on his way across the Atlantic. It was a sound democratic instinct. And because he followed this instinct, he turned what might have been, in a sense, a lynching bee into something like a triumphal homecoming.
I shall not easily forget an extended conversation with justice Black on the evening following his arrival. Journalists learn to be skeptical of the drama of events, and yet there are moments when man and occasion combine to leave an ineradicable mark. This was one. Justice Black’s biography, as I have pieced it together from this and other sources, is one of the most moving and contradictory records in our history. Since the sources were sympathetic, the record I am setting down may contain a degree of bias or rationalization. I offer it not as a final critical account but as a personal history, in which I have sought to view the action as the actor might have viewed it.
Hugo Black was born in 1886 on a farm in Clay County, Alabama, the youngest of a large family of a desolately poor farmer. He was of Scotch-Irish and English descent, and his Irish ancestors had been driven out of their country for their religious beliefs. When Hugo was five, his father moved to the county seat at Ashland, bought a small store, and became a tolerably successful merchant. The county was poor; it had neither bank nor hospital, but it did boast a primitive sort of academy called Ashland College, which provided the boy’s schooling from six to sixteen. He studied medicine for a year, but he had always had a hankering for law, and so he left medicine to complete a two-year law course at the University of Alabama. In 1907, at the age of twenty-one, he settled down to a career as a Birmingham lawyer.
There followed intense work at law, reading crowded into the night hours, rapid political success. Birmingham was the school that taught him. He made close connections with the trade unions; in 1909 he represented the miners’ union in its first Alabama strike; later he was attorney for the carpenters’ union in another important suit. He loved the techniques of the law, mastered its procedure, began to build a state-wide fame. This led naturally to politics, and Black was elected police judge in 1910, at twenty-four, and prosecuting attorney in 1914. He had been absorbed with politics ever since he could remember: he recalls staying up all night as a boy of ten to listen to the election returns for probate judge. He was a hard and tireless campaigner: for the 1926 election he campaigned for thirteen months, dropping all his work, covering every county in the state, some of them twenty times. His opponents learned to fear him, because his appeal was that of one who knew his audiences and loved to match wits with them. In fact, as I talked with him I had a notion that when he came to make his radio statement he would feel isolated before the microphones. He would, I think, have preferred to carry his answer to actual audiences all over the country, face to face with the people to whom he responded and who responded to him.