Centre’s John Marshall Harlan has Hollywood connection
April 8, 2010 By Abby Malik
he is related to Centre alumnus John Marshall Harlan, who in
1896 was the only Supreme Court justice to assert that the
principle of “separate but equal” is unconstitutional.
In his Plessy dissent, Harlan (above), who graduated from Centre
in 1850, wrote that “in respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal
before the law.”
It has recently been discovered that one of Centre College’s most important alumni, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, has a surprise connection to present-day Hollywood.
In a February 2010 interview on NPR's “Fresh Air,” actor William Hurt reveals that Harlan, Class of 1850, is a distant relative on his father’s side. (His father is buried in Kentucky.)
“My first cousin, by the way, on my father’s mother’s side was John Marshall Harlan, who was a Supreme Court justice, as was his grandson,” Hurts tell “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. “And I think a lot of my fight and my work to struggle for fairness and the techniques of theater and in subject matter probably stems in some way from some sense I have of his issues in life.”
(To listen to Hurt's entire “Fresh Air” interview, click here.)
Hurt proudly recounts what makes Harlan a legend: “He was the one and only Supreme Court justice to stand up to all eight other justices in Plessy v. Ferguson, and his words became the prototype for the rescinding of Plessy in Brown v. The Board of Education in ’54. So there’s a natural connection to civil issues, and I think that has a lot to do with why I do what I do.”
An Academy Award-winning actor (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985), Hurt has also received recognition for his roles in films such as The Big Chill, A History of Violence, Syriana, Children of a Lesser God and Into the Wild, among many others. And he has performed in the television show Damages. Trained at Tufts University and The Juilliard School, Hurt has been nominated for four Academy Awards, the last time being in 2005 for his supporting role in A History of Violence.
His most recent role is that of an ex-con who takes a road trip across post-Katrina Louisiana in an attempt to get his life back on track in The Yellow Handkerchief.
A Brief History of Harlan
Harlan was born near Danville in 1833 and was raised in a prosperous slaveholding family. When the Civil War erupted, however, he fought for the Union, serving for two years as a colonel. In 1863, he was elected attorney general of Kentucky, and in 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Peter Canellos, writing for The Boston Globe in 2009, says of Harlan, “When he was appointed to the Supreme Court, Republicans worried that he wouldn't give full force to the postwar constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal rights to blacks. They were wrong. For the next 34 years he was the best–and sometimes only–friend that black people had in any position of power.”
Harlan’s most famous opinion was in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. In it, seven justices (with one abstaining) voted to validate a Louisiana law requiring African-Americans to travel in separate railroad cars. Harlan alone voted to rule the statute unconstitutional.
As Canellos explains, “Harlan understood instantly that by accepting the ‘separate but equal’ fallacy, the Supreme Court was jeopardizing the nation’s most cherished principle of equality under the law. Never before had a Supreme Court justice stood so forcefully against the prevailing views of his brethren and much of society at the time.”
In his Plessy dissent, Harlan wrote, “In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest man is the peer of the most powerful. The law…takes no account of his color when his civil rights are involved.”