The irony was stark.
Fifty years ago, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of an enslaved man who had become one of the country’s most famous litigators, was about to be sworn in as the first African American justice on the Supreme Court. And Marshall wanted to take the constitutional oath of office from Hugo Black, a white associate justice who had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The optics on Sept. 1, 1967, were intentional. Marshall, then 59, had led the NAACP’s legal team in the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal racial segregation in U.S. public schools.
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“Thurgood Marshall knew most Southerners, and Southern politicians, opposed his groundbreaking nomination,” said Wil Haygood, author of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America.”
Eleven Southern senators had voted against his confirmation on Aug. 30, 1967, complaining not about his race, but about his “activist” temperament.
“After all, he was the civil rights attorney who had upended many Southern discriminatory practices,” said Haygood, a former Washington Post reporter. “Marshall’s decision to have Hugo Black — a one-time Alabama Klansman and justice on the Supreme Court in 1967 — administer him the oath was seen as shrewd because Marshall wanted to make an overture to the South. As well, Black had by then long proven his liberal bona fides on the court,” including being part of the unanimous decision striking down school segregation.
Black had sworn Marshall in once before, when in 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him the country’s first black solicitor general.
Black, who never finished high school or college before attending law school at the University of Alabama, had been nominated to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had been on the court only a few weeks when, on Sept. 12, 1937, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a blistering expose on Black’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan. He had been a member of the Klan from 1923 until 1925 — at a time when Klan membership had soared to 5 million across the country.
The Post-Gazette published Black’s handwritten resignation letter from the Klan — a scoop that would win reporter Ray Sprigle a Pulitzer Prize. The story began like this:
“Hugh Lafayette Black, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, is a member of the hooded brotherhood that for ten long blood-drenched years ruled the Southland with lash and noose and torch, the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He holds his membership in the masked and oath-bound legion as he holds his high office in the Nation’s Supreme tribunal — for life.”
Black had joined the “Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1, Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” on Sept. 11, 1923.
His July 9, 1925, resignation letter, scrawled on golden-yellow stationery of the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Klan, was the first move of his winning campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
In barely legible black cursive that slanted from left to right down the page, Black wrote: “Dear Sir Klansmen: By to Tender you herewith my resignation as a member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan [officially] from this date on.” Yours [illegible] Hugo L Black.
Black was in Europe when the story was published. When he returned, the Supreme Court justice delivered an 11-minute explanation in a highly anticipated radio address.
“I number among my friends many members of the colored race,” Black told listeners. “Certainly, they are entitled to the full measure of protection accorded by our Constitution and our laws.”
“I did join the Klan. I later resigned. I never rejoined. … Before becoming a senator, I dropped the Klan. I have had nothing whatever to do with it since that time. I abandoned it. I completely discontinued any association with the organization. I never resumed it and never expect to do so.”
Although dozens of newspapers called for Black’s resignation, he remained on the court. And three decades later, the former Klan member helped Thurgood Marshall make history, swearing him in as his Supreme Court colleague.
Supreme Court justices are required to take two oaths — the constitutional oath and the judicial oath. The clerk of the court would later administer the judicial oath to Marshall on Oct. 2, 1967, and that was the moment that made front-page headlines.
Marshall’s constitutional oath wasn’t front-page news, and the Klan angle was largely ignored. The New York Times ran an Associated Press story on page 10. The headline read: “Marshall Inducted in Closed Ceremony.”
“Thurgood Marshall was sworn in today as a Justice of the Supreme Court and was presented with a Bible by Justice Hugo L. Black, who officiated at the ceremony,” the story reported. The swearing in was held in Black’s chambers.
Marshall emerged from the court smiling. “Asked why the ceremony was held in private, he said it was a matter of protocol,” the article said.
Decades later, Marshall’s wife, Cissy Marshall, acknowledged the irony in an interview with The Washington Post.
Although Black had once been a member of the Klan, “when he got into the court, he turned out to be one of the most liberal justices,” she said. And Justice Black and Justice Marshall became friends, serving together until Black’s retirement from the court on Sept. 17, 1971.
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