Hugo Black

Hugo Black

Hugo Black was born in Clay County, Alabama, on 27th February, 1886. After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1906 he practiced law in Birmingham.

A member of the Democratic Party, Black was elected to the Senate in 1926. Black had been influenced by the economic ideas of G.D.H. Cole and Stuart Chase. In December 1932 he introduced a bill to bar from interstate commerce articles produced in plant in which employees worked more than five days a week or six hours a day. Black claimed that his proposal would create six million jobs. William Green, the president of the American Federation of Labor, claimed the Black measure struck "at the root of the problem - technological unemployment" and threatened a national strike in support of the 30-hour week.

After he was elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially opposed massive public works spending. However, by the spring of 1933, the needs of more than fifteen million unemployed had overwhelmed the resources of local governments. In some areas, as many as 90 per cent of the people were on relief and it was clear something needed to be done. His close advisors and colleagues, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Robert LaFollette Jr. Robert Wagner, Fiorello LaGuardia, George Norris and Edward Costigan eventually won him over.

On 9th March 1933, Roosevelt called a special session of Congress. He told the members that unemployment could only be solved "by direct recruiting by the Government itself." For the next three months, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress passed, a series of important bills that attempted to deal with the problem of unemployment. The special session of Congress became known as the Hundred Days and provided the basis for Roosevelt's New Deal.

Black was also a strong supporter of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). At Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the Tennessee River, a $145,000,000 hydro-electric plant and two munitions factories had been built during the First World War. After the war, Senator George Norris of Nebraska and John Rankin of Mississippi drafted a bill that would enable these facilities to be converted for peacetime purposes. Norris, a progressive Republican, twice persuaded Congress to pass this legislation, but both times it was vetoed by the president, first by Calvin Coolidge, and then by Herbert Hoover. They both argued that as the plant would be government owned, it would be an example of socialist planning. Something that both men were strongly against.

Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with what Norris was trying to do and believing it would stimulate the economy of one of the poorest regions in the United States, gave it his full support. On 10th April, 1933, Roosevelt asked Congress to set up the Tennessee Valley Authority. The munitions factory became a chemical plant manufacturing fertilizers and the hydro-electric plant now generated power for parts of seven states (Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi).

In 1937 Black was appointed to the Supreme Court. Members of the Republican Party in Congress objected because of his well-known support for the New Deal and it was claimed that Roosevelt was attempting to get a majority of justices who would not veto his legislation. Progressives in the Democratic Party were also uneasy about the appointment as Black had been for a long-time a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

As Republicans suspected, Black joined those on the Supreme Court who regarded Roosevelt's desire for increased federal powers over the economy as constitutional. However, he showed that he had clearly renounced his previous racial views and became a strong supporter of individual civil rights.

After the Second World War Black was clearly associated with the group of liberals on the Supreme Court that included Felix Frankfurter (1939-1962), William Douglas (1939-1975), Frank Murphy (1940-1949) and Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991). Over the years Black argued against mandatory school prayers and the need for the availability of legal counsel for suspected criminals. He also supported the right of newspapers such as the New York Times to expose the secret policies of Richard Nixon.

Hugo Black died on 25th September, 1971.

Primary Sources

(1) Hugo Black,statement on the conviction of the twelve leaders of the Communist Party (June 4, 1951)

At the outset I want to emphasize what the crime involved in this case is, and what it is not. These petitioners were not charged with an attempt to overthrow the Government. They were not charged with overt acts of any kind designed to overthrow the Government. They were not even charged with saying anything or writing anything designed to overthrow the Government. The charge was that they agreed to assemble and to talk and publish certain ideas at a later date. The indictment is that they conspired to organize the Communist Party and to use speech or newspapers and other publications in the future to teach and advocate the forcible overthrow of the Government. No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.

But let us assume, contrary to all constitutional ideas of fair criminal procedure, that petitioners although not indicted for the crime of actual advocacy, may be punished for it. Even on this radical assumption, the other opinions in this case show that the only way to affirm these convictions is to repudiate directly or indirectly the established "clear and present danger" rule. This the Court does in a way which greatly restricts the protections afforded by the First Amendment. The opinions for affirmance indicate that the chief reason for jettisoning the rule is the expressed fear that advocacy of Communist doctrine endangers the safety of the Republic. Undoubtedly, a governmental policy of unfettered communication of ideas does entail dangers. To the Founders of this Nation, however, the benefits derived from free expression were worth the risk. I have always believed that the First Amendment is the keystone of our Government, that the freedoms it guarantees provide the best insurance against destruction of all freedom.

So long as this Court exercises the power of judicial review of legislation, I cannot agree that the First Amendment permits us to sustain laws suppressing freedom of speech and press on the basis of Congress' or our own notions of mere "reasonableness." Such a doctrine waters down the First Amendment so that it amounts to little more than an admonition to Congress. The Amendment as so construed is not likely to protect any but those "safe" or orthodox views which rarely need its protection.

Public opinion being what it now is, few will protest the conviction of these Communist petitioners. There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions, and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in a free society.