The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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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 [1] was an enthusiastic Jim Crow liberal [2] 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 [3], 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.

Uh oh.

Now, it seems that some senators [4] 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 [5] 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 [6]: 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."

"I never used it," he said. "I did not even keep it. Before becoming a Senator I dropped the Klan. I have had nothing to do with it since that time. . . . I have no sympathy with any group which, anywhere or at any time, arrogates to itself the un-American power to interfere in the slightest with complete religious freedom."

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 [7].)

My impression is that he went down well. Gallup polls apparently [8]
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.

  1. Hugo Black makes a neat irony pairing with Walter White, boss at the time of the NAACP. Who himself, furthering the irony, could pass - and did so in researching his magnum opus on lynching, Rope and Faggot - and eventually married a white woman (July 6 2004).

  2. The second most liberal Democrat senator in the 71st Congress, according to his DW-NOMINATE first dimension score.

    I note that the party separation is almost complete, as it is today: four Republicans are more liberal than the most conservative Dem (Broussard of LA).

    By FDR's first Congress, the 73rd, Black is most liberal senator, and the number of enclave Republicans rises to 8 - but only because of Huey Long, the Zell Miller of his age!

    Black's 2nd dimension (race) score is in marked contrast: he's 52nd most 'racially liberal' in the 71st, 62nd in the 73rd. As I've mentioned before, though, the 2nd dimension is generally acknowledged to be unreliable - perhaps more so in congresses where there weren't many votes on racial measures.

    An example of such a vote, I discussed on February 12 was that on the Costigan-Wagner antilynching bill in 1935: Black lined up with Bilbo and all but one of the Confederate senators to kill the bill.

  3. Which, I've hypothesised before, was an intentional loss designed to secure a hostile Congress on which the Roosevelt Recession and the general failure of the New Deal to return the country to normalcy could be blamed.

  4. Northerners, say the Beards, but they don't specify a party affiliation.

  5. The only presser dealing with the Black KKK situation that I can see.

  6. What part did the White House spin machine have in his selection of media strategy? No idea, as yet.

  7. He says it was because all the other lawyers and many jurors were Klansmen, and it was a service to his clients that he should be one too.

  8. The same piece has Black saying
    Before becoming a senator, I dropped the Klan. I have had nothing to do with it since that time.
    This is very much not the impression I got from the Webb article I discussed in the July 5 piece. One could well imagine that politicians would be supplied with paperwork showing them breaking links with the Klan, with a view to deception. But I've no evidence on the point.


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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