On Friday, the 13 trustees of the University of Alabama voted unanimously to remove the name of former two-term Democratic Gov. Bibb Graves from a building and rename it for the first Black student to attend the university.
The reason for the change from Bibb Graves Hall to Autherine Lucy Foster Hall was the onetime membership of Graves, who served as governor of Alabama from 1927-31 and 1935-39, in the Ku Klux Klan.
Graves, who died in 1942 as he was preparing a bid for a third term, admitted in 1937 that he had once belonged to Klan and served as an officer known as the "exalted cyclops."
What prompted Graves to admit his past membership was the sensational revelation that Hugo Black — former Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama and Franklin D. Roosvelt’s first appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court — had himself been a member of the notoriously anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic Klan years before.
Over the weekend, Alabama sources told Newsmax, the same reason for the renaming of the university hall that formerly honored Bibb Graves may prompt a similar renaming of the 9-story U.S. courthouse in Birmingham — the Hugo L. Black United States Courthouse.
Throughout hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there were rumors that Black, a strong supporter of FDR’s News Deal agenda, had once been a Klansman.
But at a time when nominees to the Supreme Court did not testify before the committee scrutinizing their nomination, Black was never directly asked about his Klan association.
By a vote of 13-4, the Judiciary Committee reported Black’s nomination favorably. Eight days after he was nominated, following six hours of debate, the Senate confirmed Black by a vote of 63-16. He was immediately sworn in as a justice.
"JUSTICE BLACK REVEALED AS KU KLUX KLANSMAN," blared the headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The story by Ray Sprigle revealed that Black had been a member of the Robert E. Lee Klan Number One in Birmingham from September 1923 to July 1925. His handwritten resignation was reproduced on Page One of the Post-Gazette.
Among other things, the report revealed, Black had handled the successful legal defense of E.R. Stephenson, a barber and Birmingham Methodist preacher, who in 1921 was accused of shooting Father James Coyle shortly after the Catholic priest had married Stephenson’s daughter to a Puerto Rican.
"Hugo Black, the lead defense lawyer, the brilliant mastermind of what was truly an unjust trial, would later join the Ku Klux Klan, run for the United States Senate, and eventually get a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States," observed U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Bill Pryor in a soon-to-be-released Alabama Public Television film on Father Coyle’s life and legacy.
(Pryor’s chambers are located in the Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse. The judge keeps a photograph of Father Coyle in his office).
Calls for Black’s resignation appeared in numerous editorials, with Newsweek admonishing that the new justice must accept responsibility for his silence during the Senate debate.
Kansas publisher William Allen White said that FDR "dishonored" the high court by naming Black. Several embarrassed senators said they would have never voted for his confirmation. FDR categorically told a news conference he had no advance knowledge of his nominee’s background in the Klan.
On Oct. 1, Justice Black made a stunning and unprecedented decision to address the growing controversy on national radio, which drew an estimated 50 million American listeners — more than any recent broadcast at the time aside from King Edward VIII’s abdication of the British throne in 1936.
Speaking from a friend’s home, Black told the nation: "I did join the Klan," but quickly underscored that "I later resigned. I never rejoined…. [M]y record as a senator refutes every charge of racial or religious intolerance."
For good measure, Black threw in that "some of my best and most intimate friends are Catholics and Jews." Of the Klan controversy, he proclaimed "my discussion of the matter is closed."
Newspaper editorials continued their denunciation of Black, with the New York Post mockingly observing "one of our best liberal friends was a Klansman but we don’t think he should be on the Court."
But people in general liked the justice’s plain language and folksy accent on the air.
Three days after his speech, Black was welcomed to the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (whose nomination Sen. Black had opposed). There were two petitions calling for Black to be barred from the court on grounds raised in the Senate, both of which were ignored by the chief justice.
In his 34 years on the high court, Hugo Black would take a strongly pro-civil rights stance. He supported ending school segregation. But he also raised old questions when he wrote the majority ruling in decisions upholding FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or banning school prayer.
Whether the name of Hugo Black will be removed from the U.S. is up to Congress and specifically the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, whose responsibilities include "the naming of public buildings and courthouses."
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