United States Senator

Hugo Black was elected to the US Senate in 1926 by a coalition of partisan interests he called the “Dry-Protestant-Progressive” voters of Alabama. Within two years, however, Black’s political coalition became hopelessly fractured. Within two more years, the Great Depression profoundly changed life and politics in Alabama and across the nation. 

Hugo Black with Senate Clerk on Confirmation
Hugo Black with Senate Clerk on Confirmation

Corporate Interests

In this era or monopoly … plunder of the many seems to have become the privilege of the few.

“Corporate interests” were the primary, animating concerns of Black’s first, 6-year term in the Senate. Black, however, had few opportunities in his first six years in office to do much more than express his anxieties and objections. He was a Southern Democrat in a national government where Northern Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. 

In 1928, one of Black’s first bills introduced in the Senate was to forbid the Federal Radio Commission from granting a license to operate a radio station owned wholly or in part by a public utility corporation. Black’s first major speech in the Senate was about his opposition to a corporate takeover of the government-owned Muscle Shoals dam in north Alabama.  “Here is the whole gist of this controversy,” Black stated on the Senate floor: “Should the power from Muscle Shoals be turned over to prosperous industry or should it be turned over to the impoverished farmer?” 

Senator Black reintroduced his bill to ban public utility corporations from operating radio stations in the following year and proposed the public registration of lobbyists in Washington. “The people of this nation have suffered enough already from secret propaganda and fraudulent lobbies,” Black told his colleagues in 1929. 

Sepia photograph if Wilson Dam in 1924
Wilson Dam, 1924

When a Senate lobbying committee held hearings on the Muscle Shoals dam (known today as Wilson dam) in early 1930, Black cross-examined witnesses exposing how power companies and other large corporations were secretly financing the “Tennessee Valley Improvement Association.” Its officers included the chairman of the National Republican Committee and it’s worked to enable corporate control of the dam. In a national radio address, Black proclaimed: “Monopoly stalks abroad in our land. Competition has all but passed away…. In this era of monopoly … plunder of the many seems to have become the privilege of the few.” 

According to Black, President Herbert Hoover attempted to place the federal government under the control of large corporations.  “I want to know why that each time the President has sent a name to the Senate…” for confirmation, “it has been the name of a man who represents or has represented the railroads,” Black asked from the Senate floor. 

Progressive Economic Agenda

My own belief is that the major contributing cause to our present dilemma is that labor has been underpaid and capitol has been overpaid.

By early 1932, unemployment and hunger in Alabama and across the nation were at unprecedented levels. “I favor an increase levy of taxes upon the concentrated and swollen fortunes of the Nation,” Black declared in response to the Great Depression. “The time has arrived when by law… we should have more Federal assistance for public education; for public welfare; and for improving the social conditions of the people of the Nation.”  

In late 1932, as Alabama’s senior senator, Black won re-election against an old millionaire opponent from his 1926 race, former Governor Thomas Kilby, who campaigned against Black by displaying a replica of the golden lifetime membership card that Black had received in a Birmingham Klan hall shortly after his 1926 election. 

The 1932 election also brought into office Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress. These changes offered Black the chance to go beyond complaining about “corporate interests” and to advance a progressive, economic agenda. Black introduced a three-paragraph bill to require a 30-hour work week for all businesses engaged in interstate commerce. The New York Times editors called it the “most socially revolutionary bill offered in this Congress, or probably in any other American Congress.”

In a national radio address, Black explained his bill: “My own belief is that the major contributing cause to our present dilemma is that labor has been underpaid and capitol has been overpaid.” By limiting work hours, Black proposed both to spread jobs to millions of unemployed and to increase the wages for all workers – without creating a federal bureaucracy. 

The Senate passed Black’s bill in April 1933, and it spurred the White House to move fast to advance its own proposals for economic recovery. The Roosevelt Administration used the threat of Black’s bill to develop support for its own National Recovery Administration (NRA), which Black declined to sponsor. Among other things, the NRA established voluntary self-government of industry by business committees and, while the committees were authorized to set fair standards for hours and wages of workers, the NRA also suspended anti trust laws. Citing both Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, Black opposed the NRA.

Black continued to push his 30-hour bill in each session of Congress, but his agenda for economic reform also included ending extravagant federal subsidies of private companies, including shipping industries. As chairman of a special investigative committee, Black exposed a widespread system of graft and corruption. In one case, the federal government under prior Republican administrations had sold ships for $1 million to a private company, although the government had spent $44 million to build and repair them for sale. The same company also received federal subsides to carry US mail across the ocean at a computed cost of $66,000 per pound of mail. 

Black guided passage of the Air Mail Act of 1934 that required competitive government contracts, prohibited holding companies and interlocking control of companies, limited corporate salaries, and gave the US Secretary of Commerce power to set maximum hours and minimum wages for pilots and mechanics involved in air delivery of US mail.

In 1935, Black became chairman of another special committee investigating lobbying activities. This committee led the Senate in exposing a wide variety of lobbying activities funded secretly by large corporations and their largest stockholders who were working unsuccessfully to defeat the New Deal’s Public Utilities Holding Company Act.

Senator Black pointing at large organization chart
Senator Black in Utilities Hearing

Black’s economic agenda also included “some form of old age pension and unemployment insurance” as well as “a system of national hospitalization” or “national health and accident insurance.”  Alabama’s senior Senator gave up his third ranking seat on the Judiciary Committee to get a position as the junior member of the Senate Finance Committee. Black switched committees to push social legislation and a redistribution of wealth through tax policies. To get out of the Depression, he stated, the government would have to shift taxes “from the little man who consumes onto the rich man who saves.” 

In 1937, as chairman of the Senate Labor and Education Committee, Black developed a sweeping range of federal legislation to address the nation’s economic problems. In March, he reported to the full Senate his bill to provide $1 billion to the states over 5 years in federal aid “for the support of public schools” – the first serious effort to establish permanent federal funding of public education (K-12) since the Blair Bill of the 1880s. In a nationwide radio address, Black argued: “There is no longer reason for us to depend upon the old theory that the poor shall educate the poor. It produces grossly unfair educational opportunities. This great nation of ours needs an educated citizenship…”

In addition, Black led efforts in the Senate in the summer of 1937 to provide permanent federal support for safe and sanitary housing across the United States, to create a permanent Civilian Conservation Corps, to sustain investigations into corporate terrorism against union organizers (including those in Alabama), and to establish the nation’s first minimum wage and fair labor standards act.

Senator Black talking to media about his nomination.
Senator Black talking to media about his nomination.

These initiatives were pending when in August, 1937, Black accepted President Roosevelt’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was confirmed by his Senate colleagues as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court on August 17. A month later, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette used documents supplied by a former Alabama Klan leader to publish a series about Black’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan. 

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