Centre graduates paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education
RELEASED: February 7, 2008
DANVILLE, KY—Thanks to two of its most esteemed graduates, Centre College has a story that merits retelling during Black History Month.
John Marshall Harlan, class of 1850, served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 34 years.
Justice Harlan refused to endorse the concept of segregation. Nearly 60 years before the famous Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case that found the practice of "separate but equal" violated the14th Amendment of the Constitution, he came to that same conclusion. The Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling drew heavily on Justice Harlan's written opinions.
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 didn't violate the constitution. However, Justice Harlan (who served on the high court until his death in 1911) insisted that the 14th Amendment requires individual states to accord equal treatment to all Americans—regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.
More than half a century later, Centre graduate Fred M. Vinson also was involved in court cases relating to the Civil Rights movement.
Justice Vinson, who graduated from Centre in 1909 and from Centre's law school in 1911, served on the Supreme Court from 1946 until his death in 1953. He died shortly before getting to see the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case through.
However, Justice Vinson's court wrote several decisions that laid the groundwork for the Brown case to come up for consideration.During her address to the Centre graduating class of 2004, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner lauded Harlan and Vinson as "two of the key architects of a special kind of bridge. That was the bridge to what some people call the most important decision of the modern Supreme Court—Brown v. Board of Education."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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