||Feature: From Centre to Supreme Court
RELEASED: August 8, 2001
College has made mark on highest court in land, civil rights movement
John Marshall Harlan and Fred Vinson are cases in point. They're the two leading bonds Centre College has to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. And they're also known as trailblazers in this country's civil rights movementeach refusing to accept segregation in a time when their stance wasn't always in the majority.
Harlan, Class of 1850, served as an associate justice on the court for almost 34 years.
Born in Boyle County, Ky., in 1833, Harlan served in the Union Army during the Civil War and rose to the rank of Colonel. After the war he returned to Kentucky to practice law. President Hayes appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1877.
Nearly 60 years before the famous Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case that found the practice of "separate but equal" violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, Justice Harlan had come to that same conclusion. The Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling drew heavily on Justice Harlan's ideas.
In the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice Harlan cast the lone dissenting vote in the case that made "separate but equal" law. Plessy v. Ferguson arose out of a Louisiana statute that required separation of white and black passengers traveling within the state on passenger trains. Plessy, who was of mixed ancestry but considered a Negro under Louisiana law, was arrested and jailed for taking a seat in a "white" coach and refusing to move to a "colored" car. The Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld Plessy's conviction, and he appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
A majority of the court affirmed the conviction and held that the statute did not violate the Constitution. However, Justice Harlan insisted that the 14th Amendment requires the states to accord equal treatment to all Americansregardless of race or previous condition of servitude.
Justice Harlan served on the high court until his death in 1911.
Fred M. Vinson graduated from Centre in 1909 and from Centre's law school the same year Harlan died. Born in Louisa, Ky., in 1890, Vinson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1924, and served a total of six terms in the House. He was in the inner circle of both President Roosevelt and President Truman's administrations.
In 1938, President Roosevelt appointed Vinson to the United States Court of Appeals. He held a series of Administration positions during World War II. In 1945, President Truman appointed Vinson to become Treasury Secretary. The next year, Vinson was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Vinson served on the Supreme Court from 1946 until his death in 1953. Chief Justice Vinson died shortly before getting to see the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case through.
However, Vinson's court wrote several decisions that laid the groundwork for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. In Shelley v. Kraemer, decided by unanimous decision in 1948, Vinson held in the opinion of the court that states violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when they enforce restrictive covenants that exclude persons on the basis of race from occupying designated real estate as their residences.
Vinson's majority opinion in Sweatt v. Painter was a direct precedent for the Brown case. Sweatt had applied for the University of Texas Law School but was denied because he was an African-American. But in 1950 the Supreme Court ordered the integration the of the university's law school and graduate school.
And Centre's connection to the Supreme Court extends into the present. The College has had three students in the past few years serve as Supreme Court interns.
Ryan Keith, a 1996 graduate of Centre, took part in two summer internships. In his first internship in 1995, Keith helped document and collect the court's history as well as serve as the primary liaison between the court and the general public. He gave lectures to visitors about how the court functions and the history of the buildings and architecture. The following summer Keith worked in the office of the chief justice. He helped research articles and speeches.
"My most prominent memory of that time is probably access the Supreme Court is a much, much smaller branch of government than the other two, and it really is an intimate place to work," said Keith, finishing up a degree in law at Washington & Lee University and getting ready to join a law firm in Washington D.C. "Even low on the totem pole, there wasn't a single space in the building where I wasn't allowed to go, or couldn't go practically anytime I wanted.
"I really got stars in my eyes."
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