Hugo Black ( 1886–1971 ), a justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1937 to 1971, is perhaps best known for his staunch opinions regarding the First Amendment and his pro–civil rights decisions, including his participation in the landmark 1954 school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Despite his long-stated opposition to vulgarity and his Baptist upbringing, regarding the First Amendment, and questions of obscenity in particular, Justice Black rejected the idea that something could be “obscene” as a fundamental principle.
Hugo Lafayette Black, the youngest of eight children, was born in the southern Appalachian hill country of eastern Alabama to William Lafayette Black and Martha A. (Toland) Black. Raised and educated as a Baptist by his Scotch-Irish parents, Black spent his early life in Ashland, Alabama, where his father worked as a storekeeper and small-scale farmer. A bright student, Black spent a year at Birmingham Medical School before pursuing a law degree at the University of Alabama. Following graduation he came to specialize in labor and personal injury cases until assuming the position of Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney in 1914. He resigned in 1917 to join the war effort, eventually reaching the rank of captain, though he never served in a foreign theater. After leaving military service, Black returned to practicing law and in 1921 married his first wife, Josephine Foster, with whom he had three children; she died in 1951. Black married Elizabeth Seay DeMeritte in 1957.
In the early 1920s Black' s attention began to shift from law to politics, culminating in his successful 1926 bid for a seat in the United States Senate. During this time Black joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), explaining in a later interview that, at that time, “I would have joined any group if it helped me get votes.” Still, Black' s now-infamous flirtation with the KKK was brief, consisting of participation in several parades and a scattering of speeches, primarily focused on the burgeoning anti-Catholic sentiment of the times. Indeed, Black' s later rejection of the Klan and its ideals is evident from his opinions in monumental legal decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 ( 1954 ), in which he held the doctrine of separate but equal to be constitutionally unworkable, and United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 ( 1966 ), upholding the murder convictions of seven members of the Ku Klux Klan in what was later called the “Mississippi burning” case.
As a Democratic senator Black represented Alabama from 1927—winning more than 86 percent of the vote in his bid for a second term—until his appointment to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. During his time in the Senate, Black gained a reputation as a shrewd congressional investigator, sponsoring antifraud legislation in the form of the Black-McKellar Bill, later the Air Mail Act of 1934, and joining in congressional efforts to limit the impact of lobbying on the political process. Perhaps more important, Black served as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor. Largely due to Black' s continued insistence on the importance of labor issues, this committee sponsored legislation restricting the maximum work week to thirty hours and establishing a national minimum wage. After modification by the House of Representatives, this bill later became the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Black' s nomination to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 63–16.
The important legal pronouncements of Black' s Supreme Court tenure make him one of the most significant justices of the twentieth century. The length of that tenure, spanning thirty-four years, currently ranks fifth in Supreme Court history. He was particularly known for his commitment to textualism, the view that the Constitution should be interpreted consistently with the plain meaning of constitutional language. Black's free speech absolutism was the most famous example of his textualism. In his view, “no law” in the First Amendment “means no law.” Regarding the words “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” the amendment “says Congress shall make no law doing that” ( Cahn 1962, 553–54; emphasis in original ). Black's last opinion while on the bench in New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 717 ( 1971 1968 ), stated, “the words ‘No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States’ seem to me an eminently reasonable way of expressing the idea that, henceforth, the Bill of Rights shall apply to the States.” In his later years, Black's textualism often justified his refusal to protect certain rights. Dissenting from the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 510 ( 1965 ), which held that married people had a right to use birth control, he asserted, “I like my privacy as well as the next one, but I am nevertheless compelled to admit that government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision.”
On the whole, Justice Black's service on the Court contributed to a broader expansion of civil liberties, including enlargement of voting and labor rights. Still, his legacy is perhaps tarnished by his decisions in cases such as Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 ( 1944 ); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 ( 1967 ); and Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 ( 1961 ). These cases exemplify a continuation of Black's long-time commitment to judicial restraint and to the elected representatives of the people, as embodied by the executive and legislative branches. In short, Black adopted a deferential attitude toward the Article I and II branches save for where their actions violated a right guaranteed by the Constitution, such as, in his opinion, an almost absolute freedom of speech, pursuant to the First Amendment.
In 1971, at the age of eighty-five, failing health prompted Black to check himself into the hospital. Shortly thereafter, he resigned from the Court, and he died a few days later.
SEE ALSO Douglas, William O. ; Frankfurter, Felix ; Freedom of Speech ; Incorporation of the Bill of Rights ; Supreme Court of the United States .
Cahn, Edmund. “Justice Black and First Amendment ‘Absolutes’: A Public Interview.” New York University Law Review 37, no. 4 (1962): 549.
Dunne, Gerald T. Hugo Black and the Judicial Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Newman, Roger K. Hugo Black: A Biography. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.
Suitts, Steve. Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution. Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2005.
Fort Hays State University