Hugo Black, he was an ex-Klansman, and he turned...


September 18, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"LOOK AT Hugo Black, he was an ex-Klansman, and he turned out to be one of our great champions," Willa Edombi told The Sun's Doug Struck, who was interviewing blacks in New Orleans about Clarence Thomas.

(The day that story appeared, a similar one in the Washington Post quoted Bill Williams of P.G. County: "Will he be like Justice Hugo Black, who changed his views?" Who says today's youth know no history?)

I'll bet Clarence Thomas envies Hugo Black's nomination process. President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Senator Black, an Alabama Democrat, on Aug. 12, 1937. A Judiciary Committee subcommittee held a brief meeting on Aug. 13 and voted 5-1 to send the nomination to the full committee. The full committee met for 90 minutes on Aug. 16 and voted 13-4 to send the nomination to the full Senate.

Neither committee heard witnesses or looked into rumors that Senator Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. These rumors were pretty open. Time magazine joked that if Black went on the court he wouldn't have to buy a robe, just dye his old one. Black had denied the rumor for years, but it persisted, because sometimes rather than denial he just said, "no comment."

The full Senate began debating his nomination on the same day the Judiciary Committee recommended it. A senator raised the Klan issue. Black said nothing, but other senators denied it for him in his behalf. The Senate confirmed Black on Aug. 17 by a vote of 63-16. He took his oath on Aug. 19.

On Sept. 13, Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the story with documented proof that Black had been a Klansman for about three years in the 1920s. Black admitted it on Oct. 1.

Roosevelt expressed surprise. The public expressed shock (through the Gallup Poll) and the opinion that Black should resign as justice. Black refused, and, as the opening quotes suggest, went on to become one of the court's most liberal voices for much of his ensuing 34 years on the court.

President Roosevelt always maintained that he had not asked Black about the rumors when he appointed him and did not know that he had been in the Klan. He implied once to a member of his administration that he thought Black should have volunteered a confession when he was offered the nomination. To which the official replied to Roosevelt, "If Marlene Dietrich invited you to make love to her, would you say you were no good at making love?" (Guess the official. Answer below.)

FDR may have been lying. Black wrote a private memo, made public after his death, saying, "when I went up to lunch with [FDR], he told me there was no reason for my worrying about having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He said that some of the best friends and supporters he had in the state of Georgia [FDR's second home] were strong members of the organization."

(Answer to the question: Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.)

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