Vol. 15 No.9 (September 2005), pp.890-895


HUGO BLACK OF ALABAMA: HOW HIS ROOTS AND EARLY CAREER SHAPED THE GREAT CHAMPION OF THE CONSTITUTION, by Steve Suitts. Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2005. 640pp. Cloth $37.50. ISBN 1-58838-144-7.


Reviewed by Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., Department of Political Science, West Virginia University, Email: Richard.Brisbin [at] mail.wvu.edu


Because his biography of Justice Hugo Black ends in 1927 when the jurist departs Alabama for service in the United States Senate, Steve Suitts should perhaps have entitled his book “Hugo Black IN Alabama.”  His book relates in depth how the extremely ambitious youngest son of a drunk from rural Alabama used his talents and social connections for both civic good and personal success until eventually he won election to the Senate.  Indeed, what Suitts – a philanthropic foundation executive from Atlanta – provides is far and away the most thorough recounting of the experiences of any justice before he or she entered federal government service.  In this respect its depth is even more than that found in outstanding judicial biographies, such as Albert Beveridge’s THE LIFE OF JOHN MARSHALL (1916-19), Alpheus Mason’s BRANDEIS (1946) and HARLAN FISKE STONE (1956), and Woodford Howard’s MR. JUSTICE MURPHY (1968).


Since these and most other judicial biographies focus on the judge’s years on the bench, law and courts scholars might regard Suitts’ book as a half-complete biography.  Indeed, although Black is a popular subject, the book-length studies of him attend mostly or exclusively to the court years.  Despite being hampered by the destruction of his papers, they often provide important insights into Black the Justice.  These studies include traditional biographies by Howard Ball (1996), Gerald Dunne (1977), and Roger K. Newman (1997), the short biography by Tony Freyer (1990a), the studies of Black early in his judicial career by John Frank (1949) and Charlotte Williams (1950), books on Black and his judicial colleagues by Howard Ball and Philip Cooper (1992), Jeffrey Hockett (1996), Wallace Mendelson (1961), Mark Silverstein (1984), and James Simon (1989), the collections of essays on the justice edited by Tony Freyer (1990b) and Stephen Strickland (1967), and the insightful critical explorations of Black’s jurisprudence by Howard Ball (1975), James Magee (1980), and, especially, Tinsley Yarbrough (1971; 1989).  Only Virginia Hamilton (1972) has previously written extensively on the young Hugo Black, but her study concentrated on his years in the Senate.  Suitts’ biography also offers more accurate and balanced information on the young Hugo Black than do the initial draft of chapters for an autobiography by the justice and the diaries of his wife (Black and Black 1985).


Suitts’ study is best evaluated in two ways – as history, and as a contribution to political scientists’ study of the Supreme Court.  As history, his is a study based on impressive research.  Suitts has plowed through many archives [*891] for letters, official documents, and court transcripts.  He has conducted his own interviews and used interviews collected by his mentor, Charles Morgan, Jr., and others with those who knew Black in Alabama.  He has tracked down obscure government and fraternal organization publications and newspapers of the period.  The result is not just a portrait of Black but of the political milieu in which was educated, practiced law, prosecuted crimes, and held his first judicial office.  The wealth of information and detail is stunning.


However, at times there is so much detail on the political ins and outs and personalities in Clay County, Birmingham (Alabama), and Alabama state politics that the reader loses focus on key themes and ideas.  Certainly many readers’ minds will cloud when reading the pages of details that Suitts offers on the Clay County political conflicts involving Black’s father, the convict lease system, Prohibition enforcement politics, or Democratic Party factions in Alabama and Birmingham politics from Reconstruction to 1927.  Also, with so much detail and a cast of unfamiliar characters so large, the reader is constantly referring to the index to check back on who they were and what they believed or did.


Yet, shining through the book’s dark mass of detailed information are key points about the education of a justice.  First, by offering great detail on how race fit into Black’s private legal practice, Suitts deliberately exposes how deeply Alabama law entrenched racism in the body politic and how corporations used legalized racism to make profits.  In Chapters 7 and 9 he offers stunning illustrations of these practices in just two of Black’s personal injury cases – the cases of Mary Minard and Henry Lewis.  Black commonly defended African American clients, fought the use of largely black convicts as virtual slaves in the mines, and supported the biracial United Mine Workers union.  Yet, as Chapter 7 recounts, he was willing to use the work “nigger” over and over in the Minard trial of 1919.  As Suitts notes, the word was simply socially acceptable parlance.


The reader therefore is forced to confront the racial crudity and injustice of Southern whites in the theater that was the Alabama courtroom.  Although Black fought more for fairness in the courtroom than most other Alabama judges and lawyers, he could not escape a culture resting on the principle of white supremacy.  Indeed, he seems to have accommodated himself to this culture.  He nibbled at the edges of its legitimacy with some of his courtroom arguments for black plaintiffs and his brief service in judging African American defendants in police court, but he never confronted its proponents in other political contexts.  Nonetheless, by reading about the reactions of other persons to his arguments, the reader realizes why southern justice brought on the great Supreme Court civil rights and criminal procedure decisions of the 1950s and 1960s.  Indeed, several sections of the book are among the best introductions to the legalized oppression that Southern legislators, judges, and juries visited upon the black population.


Second, by service as a plaintiff’s attorney and as a police court judge, Black learned the evils of exploitative corporate capitalism.  Especially as [*892] Suitts recounts in Chapter 8, Black witnessed how capitalists break strikes and workers’ support for unions, take advantage of prison labor to reduce wages, and force individuals into poverty and desperate acts.  Unlike Southern traditionalists, however, he did not regard capitalism as an intrusion on the hallowed patriarchal rule of the best class.  Instead, as Suitts points out in Chapter 7, Black learned that capitalism is the abuse of the weak and ill-educated, furthers the oppression of blacks, and undermines democracy.  He thus developed a far more progressive economic mentality than many other Southern politicians of his era.


Third, the reader finds that Black reacted to his father’s alcoholism, as well as his active practice of a moderate – not fundamentalist – Baptist religion, by adopting a puritanical personal code of behavior.  Suitts discusses how Black’s concern with moral rectitude and ethical rigidity leads to a law and order mentality in criminal cases – with no special favors for the wealthy, whites, or the politically connected – and a monomaniacal support for Prohibition.  In Chapters 5 and 10, Suitts also asserts that Black’s support for Prohibition is linked to his desire for civic righteousness and social and personal discipline and an end to official corruption.  In this respect Black discloses an allegiance to the jeremiad against corruption and unrighteousness found in various guises throughout American political history.


Finally, although he downplays it, Suitts reveals that Black was a man of exceeding ambition.  To further his ambitions, he courted influential people, joined and led every white fraternal and civic group, and married above his class.  He undertook an enormous legal practice and social calendar to make money and, especially, to draw attention to himself.  His striving was so tenacious that, as Suitts argues in Chapter 9, Black joined the Ku Klux Klan because of the interpersonal and business contacts and friendships it provided, not because of its racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic program.


What emerges from Suitts’ biography is a picture of a man who thinks in ways affected by Southern racism but who is not an avowed racist.  He is an ambitious puritan who distrusts both traditional elites and corporate capitalists.  Obviously these values push Black in several ways.  As with Black’s efforts in discussing why he joined the Klan, they force him into inconsistent positions that he either obscures or cannot explain to others.  Nevertheless, Suitts leaves the notion that Black believed all his actions rested on principle.  He depicts Black as an idealist endeavoring to achieve more than personal glory; he wanted to be a responsible, “good citizen” who practiced an ethic of civic responsibility.  He wanted peace, tranquillity, and social order.  He also expected others to practice the same ethic.  That is why he went after the evils associated with drink, greed, and lack of due process for African American litigants.  Victory over these would advance his social ideal – a social ideal he would later locate in the text of the Constitution.


Despite the historical depth of the book, political scientists who study the Supreme Court will find that Suitts spends little time linking Black’s early years to his subsequent behavior on the Court.  Most of the linkages he does [*893] draw are brief and not especially insightful: Black’s racial attitudes contributed to his later commitment to racial justice; his economic values help explain why he was supportive of unions and the poor; his courtroom experiences explain his attention to fair criminal procedures in cases from BETTS v. BRADY (1942) through GIDEON v. WAINWRIGHT (1964) and beyond.  Yet, this reader finds in Black’s early life a concern for rights and fairness for both races in the COURTROOM but not nearly the same concern for exercises of rights that produce confrontations and civic disorder.  What Suitts calls Black’s concern for civic responsibility and his law and order or “peace and tranquillity” approach to crimes presage the hostility he would show toward demonstrators in the sit-in cases such as BROWN v. LOUISIANA (1966) and ADDERLEY v. FLORIDA (1966; see also Black 1968, at 53-58).  Additionally, his support for Prohibition and moral uprightness prefigures what Yarbrough (1971, 1989) called Black’s legal positivism, the literalism that marks opinions such as his dissent in BARENBLATT v. UNITED STATES (1959), and his statement of his constitutional principles in A CONSTITUTIONAL FAITH (1968).


Finally, Suitts provides little psychologically-based assessment of the development of Black’s views on race, order, and rights.  Black’s puritanism and hostility to privilege, his definition of service as a good citizen, and his ambition seem to have both psychological sources and effects that are not discussed in Suitts’ traditional, fact-oriented biography.  Also, Suitts’ discussion of Black’s need for friendships and sense of personal isolation, a theme of Chapter 12 and the Epilogue, entitled “Benediction,” pose interesting questions about Black’s early inability to challenge Southern ways and the mixed messages he sent about government power and dissent when a justice during the turbulent 1960s.  Consequently, I do not think that Suitts has definitively explained how Black’s “Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution.”  These caveats aside, Suitts still has produced an impressive piece of scholarship that illuminates not only the education of a justice but almost forgotten harshness and brutality of Southern law and politics in the age before Hugo Black joined the Supreme Court.





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Ball, Howard and Phillip J. Cooper. 1992. OF POWER AND RIGHT: HUGO BLACK, WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, AND AMERICA’S CONSTITUTIONAL REVOLUTION. New York: Oxford University Press.


Beveridge, Albert J. 1916-1919. THE LIFE OF JOHN MARSHALL. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. [*894]


Black, Hugo L. 1968. A CONSTITUTIONAL FAITH. New York, Knopf, 1968.


Black, Hugo L and Elizabeth Black. 1985. MR. JUSTICE AND MRS. BLACK: THE MEMOIRS OF HUGO L. BLACK AND ELIZABETH BLACK. New York: Random House, 1985.


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Freyer, Tony Allan, ed. 1990b. JUSTICE HUGO BLACK AND MODERN AMERICA. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.


Hamilton, Virginia Van der Veer. 1972. HUGO BLACK: THE ALABAMA YEARS. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.




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Mason, Alpheus T. 1956. HARLAN FISKE STONE: PILLAR OF THE LAW. New York: Viking Press.


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Strickland, Stephen Parks, ed. 1967. HUGO BLACK AND THE SUPREME COURT: A SYMPOSIUM. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill. [*895]


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Yarbrough, Tinsley E. 1971. “Mr. Justice Black and Legal Positivism,” VIRGINIA LAW REVIEW 57: 375.


Yarbrough, Tinsley E. 1989. MR. JUSTICE BLACK AND HIS CRITICS. Durham: Duke University Press.



ADDERLEY v. FLORIDA, 385 U.S. 39 (1966).


BARENBLATT v. UNITED STATES, 360 U.S. 109 (1959)


BETTS v. BRADY, 316 U.S. 455 (1942).


BROWN v. LOUISIANA, 383 U.S. 131 (1966).


GIDEON v. WAINWRIGHT, 372 U.S. 355 (1963).


© Copyright 2005 by the author, Richard A. Brisbin, Jr.