Skip to main content

Mr. Justice Black: A Posteriori

July 2024
2min read

In the history of the Supreme Court, only seven men have served longer than Hugo La Fayette Black. As this is written (in January, 1968), he is in his thirty-first year on the bench. Few justices have been more consistent in their interpretations of the Constitution and, ironically, more often misread by friend and foe alike. Because he was from Alabama and had once expediently been a member of the Klan, he was called a bigot; because he was a New Dealer in the Senate, he was labelled a radical. He was and is neither. Black is a constitutional libertarian who has steadfastly and at times eloquently supported individual liberties, during a tempestuous court era that has encompassed the New Deal, World War II, McCarthyism, and, most recently, the civil rights revolution. His decisions—usually in dissent at first, and then, as the rest of the court moves in his direction, with the majority—have invariably transcended race, creed, and religion.

Perhaps no other area of the law better illustrates his public dilemma than the question of racism, which caused the furor over his appointment in the beginning. Three years after he joined the court, Black delivered (appropriately, on Lincoln’s Birthday) an opinion that upset the convictions for murder of four Florida Negroes based on what he called “sunrise confessions” extracted by the police. President Roosevelt promptly informed the press that it owed Justice Black an apology for having sensationalized the Klan episode.

Similarly, Negro and white liberal groups alike began a painful reappraisal of the Justice that was climaxed in 1954, when Black’s persuasive influence was credited with having helped produce a unanimous court in the epic Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. This, in turn, produced a violent reaction from the South, which branded its native son a traitor. Today, however, the liberal enthusiasm for Black is again waning, in the face of his successful efforts to get the court to uphold certain convictions of civil rights demonstrators. “The right to freedom of expression,” Black pointed out in one case, “is a right to express views—not a right to force other people to supply a platform or a pulpit.”

Black is now eighty-two. Last year he underwent two operations to remove cataracts so that he can go on reading and working. When I visited him one afternoon recently, he was reading proofs of an article he had written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the links between Western civilization and that of ancient Greece. Because of the operation:, he was wearing thick lenses, and his desk was surrounded by a bank of bright lights focused on a stack of papers typed in outsized letters.

We talked for a while about the intricacies of Alabama politics and then about his pet idea during the Depression of a thirty-hour work week to spread the jobs around. When I brought up the Klan episode, he said again that he still cannot understand what the fuss was about, since all the information had been published before his appointment. Black said he was surprised to hear that Esdale was alive, and he seemed genuinely interested in my account of the former Grand Dragon’s present occupation as a bail bondsman whose clients include many Negroes and civil rights workers.

We had talked almost an hour when the door opened without the formality of a knock. It was Elizabeth, the second Mrs. Black (his first wife, Josephine, died in 1951), fiftyish, attractive, once his secretary and now clearly skillful and devoted in her role as wife. She had come to drive him to some Washington ceremony, but said tactfully that she was early and would wait outside.

The interview was over anyway. The Justice emerged from the circle of lights and walked slowly to the door. His doctors, he remarked candidly, had told him a year before that if he ever stopped playing tennis, even for a few days, he could never start again. But now, he said, they are encouraging him to renew his exercises, and he spoke of hitting the tennis ball around some more soon.

I could still sense the determination and intensity of will that had brought this man from an isolated southern county seat to the nation’s highest court. If his step was no longer spry, his mind had lost none of its vitality. I thought, as we shook hands, that if Hugo Black willed it, he would play many another set of tennis.

—Virginia Van der Veer

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.