7. Hugo Black and the Golden Age
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7 Hugo Black and the Golden Age The sheer variety of twentieth-­ century south­ ern po­ liti­ cal fig­ ures who at one time or another have been called Populists must give the historian pause. Jimmy Carter, George Wallace, James Folsom, Eugene Talmadge, Strom Thurmond, Theodore Bilbo, Huey Long, Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett , Sam Ervin, Jesse Helms, even the anti-­ Semitic propagandist Gerald L. K. Smith—commentators have identified all of them as standing in the Populist tradition.It is also worth noting that south­ ern black politicians essentially never are called Populists, though no mass po­ liti­ cal movement occurred in all of south­ ern history, with the exception of the Reconstruction Republicans, in which black participation was a more significant element. These two observations alone should be sufficient to make the student suspicious when he finds Hugo L. Black’s judicial philosophy attributed to a Populist intellectual heritage. The careful scholar would wish to see that heritage defined quite specifically, and he would want to know precisely how and when it exerted its influence on Black. The looseness with which the term Populist is bandied about is not, how­ ever, the only warning signal. Investigation reveals Hugo Black’s background in Clay County in the years of the Populist revolt to have been one exceedingly unlikely to have sensitized him to the Populist perspective.1 Black’s father, LaFayette Black, was po­ liti­ cally unsympathetic not only to Populism proper but even to its watered-­ down Bryanite free silver version ; in 1896 LaFayette Black voted for the Goldbug ticket of Palmer and Buckner. Furthermore, the elder Black was just the sort of man who would have seemed the apotheosis of evil from the perspective of Populist true believers: the proprietor of a general store in the county seat of Ashland, LaFayette Black earned a substantial part of his income from advancing to area farmers credit secured by crop liens.2 Hugo Black grew up in a relatively bustling county seat, in a family atmosphere fashioned by an economically conservative father, and by the examples of ambitious and upwardly mobile siblings, among them a doctor, a lawyer, and a merchant.3 That young Hugo internalized many of the atti- Hugo Black and the Golden Age / 149 tudes that surrounded him is evidenced sufficiently by his refusal to be satisfied with the limited education afforded by Ashland College, from which he received his initial diploma; by his determination—against some financial odds—to attend the University of Ala­ bama; by his selection of law as a career, after a brief flirtation with medicine; and by his decision, shortly after his admission to the bar, to settle and practice in Ala­ bama’s booming metropolis, Bir­ming­ham. The likelihood appears to be small that a young man from such a background would have rooted his developing personal and po­ liti­ cal ideology in a sympathy for the doctrines of the isolated farmers who were attracted to the banner of Populism, doctrines that reflected deep fears of and hostility toward the expanding market economy that threatened to overwhelm and marginalize them. Such an explanation for the origins of Black’s outlook would need the clearest evidence, given its inherent implausibility. But in fact, no contemporary evidence indicates that Black felt any enthusiasm for Populism; we have only nonspecific assertions of such a sympathy by later commentators. If, therefore, the roots of Black’s judicial philosophy are not likely to be found in Populism,do other,more credible sources explain his emerging attitudes ? Three influences on Black in his early manhood suggest a positive response to the question: his membership in the Ku Klux Klan,his passionate attachment to Prohibition, and the strong orientation of his law practice toward personal injury suits against corporations. An additional source may have been another ideological tradition profoundly influential in Ala­ bama, a tradition that by Black’s time was more generalized than Populism and of which Populism is, in a sense, a subset: Jacksonianism. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s too seldom is recognized as a fountainhead for liberalism in later decades, and Hugo Black’s involvement with the Klan very of­ ten is understated. Both are grave errors, whose sources, however, are entirely understandable. To be sure, thinking of the Klan as a breeding ground for liberals is quite difficult.Its highly unpleasant tactics in the 1920s included intimidation, masked floggings, and strident rhetorical condemnations of Catholics and Jews. Senator Black himself, during...


Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1951-.
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