With little money and few local friends, Hugo Black began in 1907 practicing law in Birmingham, Alabama, where his old Clay County friend, Barney Whatley, later joined him. They struggled to make a living as young lawyers amid a city warring over prohibition, interracial unions, racial injustice, and class conflicts. The city’s growing corporate, industrial nature enlarged when US Steel took over the local steel industry.
In 1911 Black was appointed as a part-time city judge. Judge Black’s well-publicized tenure on the city court bench was an effort to show that everyday justice could be dispensed fairly in the city courts without reliance on income of the “fee system,” a process in which law enforcement and court officials collected a fee every time they arrested, tried and convicted citizens, especially poor African Americans, of petty or manufactured crimes.
Later, Black built a lucrative law practice and expanded his circle of friends through a very active civic life. As he once remembered, “I joined everything I could…” In court, Black often represented poor white and African American workers injured in mines, factories, and mills.
In 1914, Black ran for County Solicitor (chief prosecutor of Jefferson County) on a reform platform. The local newspapers endorsed Black’s opponents, but he received a plurality victory after a strong campaign relying on his friends in the many clubs, lodges, and civic groups he had joined. Black assembled an office of effective, dedicated lawyers to bring law, order, and color-blind justice to Birmingham.
As Jefferson County Solicitor, Black released thousands of prisoners (Most were African Americans) arrested for petty crimes or charges trumped up due to the fee system. He initiated a politically dangerous grand jury investigation of the abuse of African American prisoners by the all-white Bessemer police. His grand jury report condemned the brutal practices of the police. This color-blind application of the law met strong resistance in and out of the courtrooms. With the growth of suburban Birmingham, the city’s white politics was changing, and City Commissioner A.O. Lane, who had appointed Black as city judge, lost his election to a quirky socialist. Regardless, Black continued to challenge local lawlessness, racial terror, and class-based privilege.
Black also zealously enforced prohibition in Birmingham, and his reputation earned him an appointment as a special state assistant attorney general to help clean up a massive illegal liquor ring in the city of Girard, (which repeated its history even after it was renamed Phenix City). To the surprise of everyone, Black won his first moment of front-page, statewide publicity when he maneuvered successfully in court to authorize the quick destruction of seized contraband, one of the largest cashes of illegal liquor in the country.
In Birmingham, however, corporate attorney Forney Johnston initiated courtroom tactics to remove Black from office on a technicality. After a series of bizarre legal wrangling, Johnston succeeded in forcing Black to resign his office.
America had entered World War I, and Black joined the US Army in 1917 to fight. His short military career took him across the country but not to the battlefields of France. After the War, Black returned to Birmingham where he survived a deadly strain of influenza and began to rebuild his law practice.
Amid a post-war depression, Birmingham exploded into political and economic warfare along lines of class and race. During a 1920-21 miners’ strike, black and white members of the United Mine Workers resisted industrialists’ attempts to destroy their union. Black led the UMW’s efforts to challenge the violent, race-baiting tactics of the industrialists in court, but the strike failed.
During this rancor and conflict, Black married Josephine Foster, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who had pastored among Birmingham’s elite. After an extended honeymoon, Black returned to Birmingham and successfully represented an itinerant “marrying preacher” who killed a locally prominent Catholic priest, Father James Coyle.
Maintaining a lucrative law practice, Black became Alabama’s leading spokesman in and outside the courtroom for challenging the state convict lease system and its slavery-like practices. During this time, the city’s Protestant white residents also became enthralled by the marketing-savvy appeals of the Ku Klux Klan and in 1923, after considering the advice of friends and a cauldron of concerns and conflicts, Black joined the Robert E, Lee chapter of Birmingham’s Klan. Shortly after being inducted, Black appeared in court to represent pro bono poor African American convicts who had dynamited themselves inside a coal mine in order to protest working conditions.
In 1924, Black became a Special Assistant US Attorney in order to prosecute Mobile’s whiskey “ring leaders” (including future Congressman Frank M. Boykin) who had been indicted for enriching themselves by making the city a major US port of entry for illegal liquor. While whiskey trial lingered into early 1925, Black continued his attack on the convict lease system in a case that resulted in his only appearance as a lawyer before the US Supreme Court.
Black announced as a candidate for the US Senate after incumbent Senator Oscar W. Underwood declared his decision not to seek reelection in 1925. Black suspended his law practice, resigned from the Klan, and conducted a year-long, continuous campaign that took him into every Alabama County more than once and across many rural crossroads.
His formal announcement came in the spring of 1926 at his hometown, Ashland, where on the steps of the Clay County Courthouse he proclaimed himself ready to fight against corporate greed and for a generally progressive platform that echoed many of the Populist sentiments he had heard as a boy in Clay County. Black won the election with a plurality of votes against a prestigious group of opponents whom Black described as “millionaires and corporation lawyers.” He reduced and later suspended his practice of law as he became the junior senator of Alabama.
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