Justice Hugo Black, The Ku Klux Klan, And The Trump Candidacy

In 1914, Hugo Black–a future Supreme Court Justice–was elected solicitor, or district attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He lobbied to improve prison conditions for both black and whites, and even published a report on coerced confessions. As a trial lawyer, he had successfully represented a black man who had been imprisoned twenty-five weeks beyond his original sentence. But he remained a prisoner of his time and place.

After a stint as district attorney, Black became a personal injury lawyer, and showed himself a master of the racial dog whistle. In one case, he defended a Protestant minister, E. R. Stephenson, accused of murdering a Catholic priest, James Coyle, who had performed the marriage of the minister’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican laborer, Pedro Gussman. During his questioning of prosecution witnesses, he asked several of them, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Later, he asked for floodlights to be installed in the courtroom, and had them shone on the decidedly not-white Puerto Rican bridegroom during his testimony, saying that he “just wanted the jury to see that man.” And then, during his closing argument to the jury, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Black recited the Ku Klux Klan prayer, “Our father and our God. We, as klansmen, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee.” The jury voted to acquit.

In 1923, Black joined the Klan as a prelude to running for Senate. During his electioneering, Black marched with the Klan and spoke at over a hundred meetings, all the while decked out in Klan robes. He struck many populist and nativist themes in his stump speeches, railing against corporations and income inequality and immigrants. In 1926, he was awarded, and happily accepted, the Klan’s ‘grand passport’ after winning the Democratic Party’s primary. When a clerk asked him why he had joined the Klan, Black replied, “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920s, you’d join the Klan too.”

As Black’s biography shows, racist and nativist populists who rose to power are not unknown in American political history; neither is their skilled deployment of race-baiting techniques and their sounding of dog whistles. The artful politician can invite the sympathy of the working class by concentrating on those issues that address their economic bottom line even as he appeals to their baser instincts by readily finding scapegoats among the usual suspects: foreigners and people of color. Donald Trump has learned his lessons well, even if there is little evidence he burned any midnight oil reading the biographies of Supreme Court Justices. He’s not alone in imbibing these lessons, of course; most of the Republican Party have been diligent students of their dark arts. Trump has just done it better.

And so Trump might yet say to someone who would ask him why, during the election season of 2016, he went on tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, welcomed the support of white supremacists, accused Federal judges of bias, and sought to ban an entire class of immigrants from the nation, “Why son, if you wanted to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the new millennium, you’d been a fascist too!”

Note: This post is cribbed from Jeffrey Rosen‘s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Times Books, New York, 2006, pp. 136-137).

Is “Black Lives Matter” Aiding And Abetting Criminals?

This is a very serious question and deserves a serious answer. It is so serious that the New York Times has asked: Is “police reticence in the face of such protests, some led by groups like Black Lives Matter causing crime to rise in some cities”? The first answers are in. Those honorable folk, “the heads of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they believed that this so-called Ferguson Effect seemed to be real.” (The Ferguson Effect, which sounds like an atmospheric condition that produces high winds and heavy rain, is capable of creating law and order crises.)

In general, whenever black folk get uppity, crime increases. See, for instance, the wave of crime that spread through the American Deep South after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era when freed slaves went on a rampage, killing, raping, and looting. Some folks blame that on white racists worried about the imbalance in the old power equations of the American South, but we should remind ourselves that the folks conducting those terrorist campaigns were riding around on horses while wearing white robes and hoods, so we will never, I mean never, know whether they were white or not.

We need not debate this question for too long. The FBI and the DEA–fine, upstanding defenders of civil liberties, and really, the first folks we should check in with when it’s time to evaluate political protest conducted by minorities–would never speak falsely on such matters. Besides, they have better things to do–like entrapping young Muslims in terrorist plots, arresting folks smoking that dangerous chemical, marijuana, and listening to the phone conversations, and reading the emails of, American citizens. (Some pedant will say I should be talking about the NSA but in this post 9/11 intelligence-sharing era, what’s the difference?)

We should be curious though about what such “police reticence” amounts to. Perhaps it means the following. Police officers will not be able to: fire sixteen bullets–known as ’emptying a clip’, I’m told–at black teenagers walking on a highway even ones with knives; come scrambling out of a car and begin firing, assaulting-a-Pacific-Beach style, at a twelve-year old playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground; shoot black men in wheelchairs; drive around a city with a ‘suspect’ in a paddy wagon, and then beat him to death; place sellers of illicit cigarettes in fatal strangleholds; shoot black men in the back, whether during an undercover drug sting or after a traffic stop; shoot black men who have knocked on doors seeking help; search, randomly and roughly, hundreds and thousands of young black men and women in their neighborhoods for looking suspicious.

The ultimate ramifications of such handicapping of our armed forces–sorry, police–are as yet, only poorly understood, but the contours of the resultant landscape are perhaps visible. Black folks will once again walk the streets; they will stay out late at night; they will go into white neighborhoods and mingle with the populace there. Of all the chilling effects of this new police caution, the last one, surely, is the most chilling. Black folks will be set free among us. The horror.