Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hugo Black: A Biography

While I appreciate the convenience of searching out information in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, one of the things gained in the online experience, rapidly finding the precise topic in question, is at the expense of something lost from handling the hard-cover volume of something such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is unexpectedly stumbling upon something that captivates your attention, when all along you were looking for a different topic. 

Such was my recent experience at our local public library.  I was searching the shelves to see if they had a biography of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.  Sadly, they didn’t.  But as I then wandered through the “B’s,” to my complete surprise, I stumbled on Hugo Black: A Biography, by Roger K. Newman.  Feeling as if I had discovered a rare prize I grabbed the volume and headed off to find my family and the check-out line.  And it is a rare prize indeed.

Hugo Black is primarily recalled as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court (the Court), serving from 1937 to 1971.  I had a little prior knowledge of him from when I read The Brethren, in the early ‘80’s and then later, from reading both parts of William O. Douglas’s autobiography, first The Court Years, and then several years later, Go East, Young Man.  The Brethren gives a behind-the-scenes account of the Court, year-by year, from 1969 through 1975.  This was a turbulent time for the Court, both in the nature of the cases it handled, such as school desegregation and freedom of speech, as well as for the makeup of the Court itself.  And Douglas was inextricably linked to Black, both through the generally similar leanings they had legally and politically, and the fact that they served on the Court together for 32 years.

Newman has written a comprehensive account of Black’s life, reporting not just the facts of what happened during his 85 years of life but also giving context to these events, describing how they came about and how they shaped his most enduring legacy, his work on the Court.  The biography moves through his life in five sections, beginning with his early life and legal practice, which was primarily in the area of personal injury, then addressing his ten years as a US Senator, and finally his career an the Court, dividing it into three phases. 

Black became a lawyer almost by accident.  He had tried medicine, intending to follow one of his brothers, but learned in the course of one year of medical school that he didn’t have the temperament for some aspects of medical practice.  He then tried law school, gaining admission outside of the requirements, including the absence of an undergraduate degree.  As he gradually developed a legal practice he supplemented his income through doing background investigations for insurance companies.  He also found part-time work as a municipal judge, handling traffic court in the morning and returning to his own practice in the afternoons.

Early in his legal career he developed political aspirations and he quickly joined any organization which he felt would have a future benefit.  This included joining the Ku Klux Klan.  While he publically considered his Klan membership to be little different than any other fraternal organization, and he was a member of quite a few, it was essential to his election to the Senate.  In 1926 roughly one-half of all registered voters in Alabama were Klan members and the person who functioned as his campaign manager, in every way but job title, was the head of the Alabama Klan.  Black did not parade his Klan membership as a reason for people to vote for him but he did speak with Klan chapters in nearly every place he made a campaign stop.  

His membership in the Klan was a public issue several times during his career in Washington as a senator, but not to the point that it interfered with his work as a legislator.  An astute politician, he soon resigned his Klan membership, and the Klan itself declined so sharply that by 1932 it was essentially irrelevant to his re-election campaign.  Black’s membership in the Klan was the one aspect of his past that I believe he truly regretted.  None of the “values” of the Klan, if they can be called that, seems to have shaped either his legislative or judicial career. 

At the time of his retirement from the Court, Black’s 34 years made him the third-longest serving Justice in its history.   He served with five Chief Justices and during the service of six US Presidents.  His service included the New Deal, World War Two, the cold war and the campaign for civil rights.  Each of these, and many other matters, came before the court while he was a member.  Sometimes he was in the majority and other times not.  The issues of law that were perhaps dearest to his heart concerned the Bill of Rights, and in particular the First Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As I reflect on the three divisions Newman gives to Black’s service on the court, i.e. early, middle, and late, I find myself thinking in terms of time.  Black, and his views on the application of the First Amendment, was ahead of the times, with the times, and behind the times.  He was an “absolutist” regarding free speech, writing in one opinion,

“Ultimately all questions in this case really boil down to one – whether we as a people will try fearfully and futilely to preserve democracy by adopting totalitarian methods, or whether in accordance with our traditions and our Constitution we will have the confidence and courage to be free.” (490)

And this type of thinking, that speech that was completely free of influence by any branch of government, shaped his legacy.  He was adamantly opposed to all attempts to restrain speech, be it as either written or spoken word, and I believe that he stood as a necessary corrective to the excesses of the Cold War.  Throughout his career he was passionate about understanding the both the precision of word choice as well as the intent of the Constitution’s authors, and then applying that intent to the issues of his time.  This passion, or its direction, seemed to shift in the later part of his career, as he disagreed with the idea that certain actions, such as non-violent public protest, could be construed as speech, finding instead that those actions were mere infringements on property rights, and therefore criminal conduct.  His late thoughts on these issues put him at odds with the rulings of court members he had previously been allied with, such as William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.

Black was a very well-read person and much of his thinking was shaped by his reading, particularly that of Thomas Jefferson, as well as ancient writers in Greek and Latin, such as Plato, Cicero and Tacitus.  He was also familiar with the Bible.  He was known to teach a large (100+ students) Bible study at a Baptist church before he was elected to the Senate and he occasionally cited the Bible in his personal correspondence. 

As a person who processes many things theologically I was a bit surprised by the absence of theological reflection in this biography.  Black was active in his church during the period of the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy, something that may not have directly affected his congregation, being Baptist, but certainly must have been known to them, and plausibly shaped any preaching and teaching from the Bible during that time.

Newman worked on this biography for many years, conducting extensive interviews with Black, his family and his friends, and he also did extensive research from Black’s archived writing.  I can only conclude that a theological dimension is absent from the biography because it was essentially absent from Black’s life.  As a person who is himself preparing to teach a large group on a chapter from the Gospel of John I can’t fathom effectively teaching a Biblical text that is not also deeply believed in by the teacher.  So I am at a loss to grasp how someone of Black’s intellect and ability was able to read and to teach from the Bible but appear to not also be shaped by it throughout his life. 

Newman wrote this biography in 1994, eighteen years ago and twenty-three years after Justice Black died.  I believe it holds up well as a comprehensive overview of the life and work a man who spent nearly 45 years in service his country, to the best of his ability as he understood it.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th century US history, the history of the Supreme Court, or with openness to doing as I did, i.e., stumbling across something both unexpected and interesting, and finding within it a glimpse of the effect that one man can have in the world. 

While he may have passed through the world as a person who was not explicitly a Christian, those of us who do claim that identity may be reminded through the example of Black’s life that little things, perhaps not noticed overtly by the world but still shaping that world, may yet have profound effect for the kingdom of God. 

May we continue to faithfully follow the one we call both Lord and Savior, trusting the results to his most capable hands.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how often it happens in the church where someone that doesn't truly believe what they are teaching ends up being the one teaching it. I would guess that there are a number of Pastors that have never come to a saving knowledge of Christ.