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Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion


The first thing to be said about this volume is that it takes the reader through Hugo Black's life only until the age of forty, until l926. This is unfortunate, since our strongest interest is in Black as the country's most liberal justice, the Alabamian who voted for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing public school segregation.

By Don Noble

The first thing to be said about this volume is that it takes the reader through Hugo Black's life only until the age of forty, until l926. Black has just been elected U.S. senator from Alabama and taken the seat vacated by Oscar W. Underwood and has yet to move to Washington, D.C., serve in the Senate, or sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. This is unfortunate, since our strongest interest is in Black as the country?s most liberal justice, the Alabamian who voted for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing public school segregation.

In Alabama, Black was most hated for Brown v. Board of Education, but he also ruled against unchecked Senate investigations, for free speech, almost no matter what, for the Voting Rights Act, for every person's right to an attorney. Black even voted to eliminate prayer in the public schools.

How did this huge sea change occur? Black was an Alabama Baptist, essentially a white supremacist, not interested in social equality, a member of the KKK, a man who believed most immigrants were "ignorant, illiterate, and wholly incapable of ever appreciating the ideas and duties of American citizenship" and were brought to America by large corporations to lower wages.

Suitts lays out these contradictions very neatly and then, over a very long, thoroughly documented, and overly detailed 536 pages, actually does explain them. Not explain them away, mind you, but make it comprehensible how Black became the man he was. The formative influences of a man's life have rarely been told as thoroughly.

Hugo Black was born in 1886 and raised in Clay County, Alabama. His father was active in Democratic politics and was a financially successful businessman. Black Sr., however, fell out with the Baptist Church and, most importantly, was addicted to alcohol, dying finally of cirrhosis of the liver. All his life, Hugo Black would be a devout Baptist and an obsessive, teetotaling prohibitionist.

The only value Hugo Black placed higher than achieving a dry United States was, perhaps, fairness under the law. Black in fact did not actually have a high school diploma, did not attend undergraduate school, studied medicine briefly in Birmingham and then graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in two years.

He worshipped the U.S. Constitution and made a very prosperous career in Birmingham as a litigator, never representing U.S. Steel, TCI, banks or corporations, but always clients who were seeking justice against them. To Black, it didn't matter if justice was sought by a man or a woman, a black or a white. All were equal under the law.

Black was for a while a prosecutor in Jefferson County, and during that tenure he prosecuted vigorously, but equally. Since that time, no white man from Jefferson County has been executed.

As an appointed assistant U.S. Attorney, Black attacked the liquor interests in Phenix City and, most ferociously, in Mobile, to the point where a Mobile banker declared "Mobile is prepared to secede from the state of Alabama . . . and cease to be dominated by our country cousins."

We may not today support Black's rabid prohibitionism, but other causes are not debatable. Black fought the system in Birmingham by which the sheriff and others were paid by the head for arrests?the fee system?which fed directly into the convict leasing system. In the earliest 20th century the Birmingham police made enough arrests each year to incarcerate one third of the city's entire population.

Those arrested, almost all black, even for petty crimes, were sent to the Jefferson County and Montevallo mines, to serve grotesquely long sentences. But the life expectancy of a convict miner was seven years. They died at a rate of about fifty a year, with a mortality rate of from ten to forty percent. It was slavery in the twentieth century and everybody knew it.

In fact, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that lifers were civilly dead and had no rights, including the right to sue for damages. The greed, however, was not only exercised by the mine owners. For the state of Alabama in l916, convict leasing brought in more cash than general taxes. In l920 it was 20% of all gross revenues. Convict leases were the largest source of non-earmarked funds, 38% in 1916.

Money could have been raised through corporate and personal income taxes, but the legislature and citizens in general would rather have other people suffer and die than have their own taxes raised. But, of course, that was then. This is now.

These statistics are shocking and, I think, speak for themselves. Nevertheless, from time to time Suitts, the professional civil libertarian, launches into editorials about the huge injustices of the time. These arias of outrage are superfluous and, in the face of these facts, so clearly persuasive, just divert attention from his argument.

One other issue that must be dealt with is Black's membership in the Klan. Why did he join? To attract business to his law practice, to get votes when running for office, Black joined EVERYTHING. And, in racist Alabama, it insulated and inoculated him against charges of being a liberal, the kiss of political death.

Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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