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Thursday, January 3rd, 2008 by

Historian and political scientist Howard Ball has reviewed Steve Suitts’s Hugo Black of Alabama for the Alabama Review. In his review, Ball calls the work “outstanding,” noting that Suitts “has painted a portrait that does not avoid the warts and the impulses; he depicts the good and the bad realistically in this successful effort to give his audience … a clear sense of who Hugo Black was and why he acted the way he did.”

Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution is a definitive study of Justice Black’s origins and early influences. Black came out of hardscrabble Alabama hill country, and he was further shaped in the early twentieth-century politics of Birmingham, where he rose to the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court. One of the book’s controversial conclusions is that in the context of Birmingham in the early 1920s, Black’s joining of the KKK was a progressive act, and this startling assertion is supported by an examination of the conflict that was then raging in Birmingham between the Big Mule industrialists and the blue-collar labor unions. Black went on to become a staunch judicial advocate of free speech and civil rights, making him one of the figures most vilified by the KKK and other white supremacists in the 1950s and 1960s.

From Howard Ball’s review:

Steve Suitts’s excellent biography of the young Hugo, covering the years from his birth in 1886 through the 1926 Senate race, graciously provides answers to the “puzzlement.” Suitts gives the reader an intimate, well-written, and meticulously researched account of Black’s life from his birth in rural Clay County, Alabama, to his prosecutorial and lawyerly successes in Birmingham. In doing so, the author thoroughly analyzes the effect of these years on the future member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several books have examined Black’s life in Alabama. Certainly, Virginia Hamilton’s Hugo Black: The Alabama Years (Baton Rouge, 1972) is a highly regarded resource. In my judgment, given my own familiarity with Hugo Black’s life (based on my research for The Vision and the Dream of Justice Hugo L. Black: An Examination of a Judicial Philosophy [Tuscaloosa, 1975], Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America’s Constitutional Revolution [New York, 1992], and Hugo Black: Cold Steel Warrior [New York, 1996]), Suitts’s book best explores Hugo Black’s development as an outstanding jurist and interpreter of the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes …

As a scholar who also wrote about these formative years of Black’s life, I was stunned by the quality of Suitts’s research. In preparing the book, he must have spent many months, indeed years, poring over back issues of Alabama newspapers. And this effort has given us a profoundly vibrant view of the social, political, and racial history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Alabama. Using these original sources as well as more conventional biographical materials (letters, Black’s marginalia in books in his library, etc.), Suitts gives the reader finely crafted descriptions of Black’s experiences and explanations for his paradoxical behavior. For example, as a trial lawyer in segregationist Birmingham in the early 1900s, he used the word “nigger” for effect in civil and criminal trials but subsequently fought for equality for all Americans (see his Chambers v. Florida opinion).

Suitts’s book is a significant addition to the scholarship on the life of Hugo Black. It is required reading for anyone interested in discovering the roots of Hugo Black’s jurisprudence.

Visit the Alabama Review at their website, www.auburn.edu/~bamarev/. The full review is available from the following link. The Alabama Historical Association, founded in 1947, is the oldest statewide historical society in Alabama. The Association sponsors The Alabama Review, two newsletters each year, a state historical marker program, and several Alabama history awards. More information on the Association is available at www.archives.state.al.us/aha/aha.html.

Hugo Black of Alabama is available directly from NewSouth Books, Amazon.com, or your favorite local or online book retailer. Learn more about Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black at hugoblack.com.

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