Justice Hugo Black’s KKK Speech

Given the commentary about Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony last week, I thought I might compare that performance to Justice Hugo L. Black’s 1937 radio address answering the charge that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Justice Black, unlike Judge Kavanaugh, had already been confirmed by the Senate when the national press revealed that he had once been in the KKK. There were calls for Black to resign or be impeached, so he took to the radio to respond.

In his speech, Black stated: “During my recent absence on a short vacation abroad, a planned and concerted campaign was begun which fans the flames of prejudice and is calculated to create racial and religious hatred.” This was nonsense, but note that every Justice or would-be Justice who gets into trouble (such as Justice Black, Justice Thomas during his hearings, or Judge Kavanaugh) tends to reach for conspiratorial language.

Justice Black then summarized his Klan participation this way: “The insinuations of racial and religious intolerance made against me are based on the fact that I joined the Ku Klux Klan about fifteen years ago. I did join the Klan. I later resigned. I never rejoined. What appeared then, or appears now, on the records the organization, I do not know. I never have considered and I do not now consider the unsolicited card given to me shortly after my nomination to the Senate as a membership of any kind in the Ku Klux Klan. I never used it. I did not keep it. Before becoming a Senator I dropped the Klan. I have had nothing whatever to do with it.” This was not candid  given Justice Black’s Klan membership and the role that the group played in his election to the Senate in 1926. Granted, Justice Black was not testifying under oath about these issues, but it’s hard to say that he told the truth. In private, he thought this this nothing more than an effort by FDR’s enemies to destroy his reputation.

And yet Black became one of the greatest Justices in the history of the Court. Food for thought.

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2 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Of course, the glaring difference between this case, and Kavanaugh, is that there wasn’t any question that Hugo Black was actually “guilty”.

    I wonder what sort of speech he’d have given if the accusation had been false?

  2. Joe says:

    The breadth of involvement in the Klan in the 1920s in particular made it somewhat forgivable by that time for someone to be a member from what I can tell merely as a matter of “everyone is one, so I guess I have to be one too.” It was controversial enough to split the party in the presidential convention of 1924 surely so it’s not something to handwave. But, “food for thought” would note too that point.

    Kavanaugh’s partisan involvement — including being on FOX News and writing an op-ed to WSJ — is singular enough to stand out. Ditto RBG’s comment as to Trump. (Since that is the usual “whatabout,” I’ll just toss that in.). Now, Black’s speech was as I understand it somewhat comparable. It does stand out as a questionable move on his part. And, by that point, the KKK was much less popular.

    Black’s membership in the Klan again was a matter of politics. I don’t know of any evidence he was racist though perhaps his separation of church and state position could be said to be influenced by anti-Catholic sentiment. OTOH, Kavanaugh has a history of being a partisan hack.

    Since it took a while (probably the 1950s at least) to note the greatness of Black, any answer might not be in place for some time. Or, another senator can join the senator from Alaska.