A Life of Justice: 'Hugo Black of Alabama' Biographer Steve Suitts talks about his new book, Hugo Black Of Alabama. A Supreme Court justice and onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan, Black helped create more uniform laws to protect civil rights.

A Life of Justice: 'Hugo Black of Alabama'

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Supreme Court justices come to the bench with histories, records that are scrutinized in the confirmation process with the assumption that they'll reveal how a justice might rule in the future. That wouldn't have been so easy to do in 1937 when Hugo Black of Alabama was appointed to the US Supreme Court. A new biography looks at the often-contradictory forces that formed Black's philosophy; how he went from being a member of the Ku Klux Klan to a leading proponent of equal rights on the US Supreme Court. Steve Suitts' book is "Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution." He joins us now from member station WABE in Atlanta.

Hi. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. STEVE SUITTS (Author, "Hugo Black in Alabama"): Thank you, Debbie. I'm glad to be here.

ELLIOTT: I guess let's start off--why don't you remind us a little bit about Hugo Black's career as a Supreme Court justice? You call him the `earliest prophet of America's judicial revolution.'

Mr. SUITTS: Well, the--we had at that--in 1937 a country where, in some places, someone's right to speak was protected by the state Constitution and by the state courts but not in other states. We had some states where someone was provided a lawyer if they were accused of a serious crime, but in other parts of the country they were not afforded a lawyer. What Hugo Black's judicial revolution did was to transform the nation into a country where everyone enjoyed a basic set of rights as individuals.

ELLIOTT: So why did Hugo Black, as a young lawyer in Birmingham, decide to join the Ku Klux Klan?

Mr. SUITTS: It's hard for us to imagine why he would do so because today the Klan is probably the nation's premier symbol of racial hatred and violence. And we remember the Klan in our modern memory as that group of ignorant white folks who went outside the law to assure that blacks did not fight for their equal rights in the 1950s and '60s.

ELLIOTT: Violently.

Mr. SUITTS: Yes. That was not the Klan of the 1920s. There wasn't a need for an extralegal, violent group in the 1920s. The government itself was the agent for racial violence and terror in the 1920s in Birmingham, Alabama, and in the Deep South. Now in 1923, the industrialists in Birmingham were the major agents for spreading the notion that if there was interracial cooperation, it would lead to the whole destruction of Southern society. They'd spread that view, and they used the agents of government to violently put down the interracial miners' strike in 1921 in order, in their view, to protect their own economic interests.

Well, Black represented that union. He represented the only interracial movement in the Deep South in the early part of the century. It was the first interracial movement since Reconstruction, and it would be the last interracial movement in the Deep South until the 1950s and '60s. But he was unsuccessful, and that interracial movement died at the hands of the violence of the state militia. So in 1923, Black decided that to keep the industrialists from controlling both the economy and the politics, that the Klan was an important anti-corporation agent. It was a group of middle-class, working-class white folks, anti-black, but so was the whole society.

Now I know that a short interview doesn't quite convincingly make this case. It's--but Hugo Black believed that he could change the hearts and minds of white people wherever he found them, and he did. He had some amazing cases in the courts, where he was able to convince 12 white men to do things which hardly anyone else could convince them to do. He was able to convince them to render verdicts on behalf of his poor, black clients for large sums of money. And so when he went into the Klan, he joined a lot of middle-class citizens, a lot of merchants, a lot of Baptist ministers and others. And he knew that they didn't hold the views that he held, but he also was self-confident enough to believe that he could change their minds, just like he could change the minds of 12 jurors.

ELLIOTT: So you think he joined the Klan because he thought he could change the hearts of these people? I mean, I was sort of under more of an impression that he might have joined the Klan because that was a politically expedient thing to do at the time for a young lawyer who wanted to win cases and who had political aspirations.

Mr. SUITTS: Well, he knew that to join the Klan would advance his political interests, where he did decide when and where he would run for office, and in 1923 he really didn't know. He knew that joining the Klan would advance his ability to convince people on a jury of the rightness of his clients' causes because he could get to know them and understand how they looked at the world and present his cases in a context that would make sense to them as jurors. And one of the reasons he never condemned the Klan--he never condemned the Klan even after a great controversy arose after his appointment to the court--was because he had friends in the Klan. And it shouldn't surprise any of us that the man who spoke with the greatest moral force in the 1950s, when this country went into enormous hysteria about anyone who would associate with the Communist Party, was the man who said, `You do not find people guilty of crimes and wrongdoing simply by who they associate with.'

ELLIOTT: Confirmation hearings for John Roberts are about to begin. What kind of process did Hugo Black have to go through?

Mr. SUITTS: He had one of the easiest, quickest confirmations in history. There were no hearings. In those days senatorial courtesy essentially meant that anyone who was a member of the United States Senate would--was good enough to be a member of the United States was certainly good enough to be a member of the US Supreme Court. It was not until after his appointment that there was widespread knowledge that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

ELLIOTT: Author Steve Suitts. His new book is "Hugo Black of Alabama."

Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SUITTS: Thank you.

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