The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Hugo Black's Checkers speech
I discussed on July 5 the election, with Ku Klux Klan support, of Klansman Hugo Black to the US Senate in 1926.
Black  was an enthusiastic Jim Crow liberal  who took to the New Deal like a duck to water. And, no doubt, this was noticed in the White House whenever minds turned to Supreme Court nominations.
Eventually, in 1937, there was the court packing bill , and the switch in time that save nine, and Horseman Van Devanter decided to call it day.
Black will have been a perfect nom: not only an excellent voting record (one that supported FDR, that is), but a senator: precedent would dictate that, though Black would be perceived as a poke in the eye choice - much as Bolton was for UN Ambassador - his colleagues would confirm his nomination more or less on the nod.
Which, I read in the Beards' America in Midpassage (p363ff), is pretty much what happened - on August 17 1937.
There was Black's Klan connection; but, as the Beards point out,
if affiliations with the Klan were to be thoroughly aired, a number of Senators might actually blush.
Black then celebrated with a holiday in Europe. But then - miracle of miracles! - the soporfic or, as the case may be, toadying press sprang into action.
Not all of it; just the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, owned, then as now, by the Block family. Under Paul Block, one of the many newspaper owners who hated Roosevelt's guts, the rag's Ray Sprigle did some digging and found some dirt on Black (p365):
[The paper] published serially a number of documents and facsimiles purporting to show that Mr Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, that he had received a life membership in that association, and that he had addressed his white-robed brothers in fulsome terms.
Now, it seems that some senators  who had previously allowed senatorial comity and a desire not to rock the boat dictate their vote found a reserve of courage under the goad of Block.
Roosevelt came under a bit of pressure - but extracts from his September 14 press conference  suggest his contempt for the media was no less than that of the present incumbent!
When Black gets back from Civilisation, he, too, flips off the press. He's had an idea : he will emulate the top man, and go on the radio.
Which he did, on October 1. There are commercial recordings available of Black's speech but no transcript, that I can find.
This has a word or two on what he said:
On the night of October 1, 1937, Mr. Black made his first and last public remarks on the issue to an audience estimated at 50 million. He admitted that he had been a member of the Klan, but categorically denied that he still was, saying that the "unsolicited card" given to him after his Senate nomination was not considered by him to be "membership of any kind."
It also quotes a New York Times editorial in typically high dudgeon:
At every session of the Court, the presence on the bench of a Justice who has worn the white robe of the Ku Klux Klan will stand as a living symbol of the fact that here the cause of liberalism was unwittingly betrayed.
Undoubtedly, the editorial function at the Times, not to mention its Washington bureau, would have known all along about Black's Klan links. And they had decided to go along by keeping quiet about the matter.
Block, you can imagine, would have been desperately popular among his fellow owners!
(The Times published an interview with Black after his death in which he had a second crack at explaining away his KKK connection .)
My impression is that he went down well. Gallup polls apparently 
showed the country shifting from a solid majority supporting his resignation to a solid majority supporting his retention of the seat...
But, just in case, Roosevelt chose the first Tuesday in October to give in Chicago what is known as the Quarantine Speech (also here) in which he gets a little frisky with the European dictators.
That, it seems, smothered the Klan story.
Ray Sprigle got a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for his work on the Hugo Black/KKK story.
Unfortunately, his pieces don't seem to be anywhere online. The guy did do a series in 1948 - which is online - in which he went down South to pass as Negro to showcase Jim Crow in operation. He didn't get a second Pulitzer for this!
According to this, Sprigle died in a car accident in 1957.
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