“[In a time of segregation] one Kentuckian stood apart and shines in the light of history...In case after case, Harlan stood as a lonely dissenter, urging the court and the nation to keep the promise of the Declaration and the equal rights amendment...”
Kentucky Supreme Court Justice
“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.”
—John Marshall Harlan (from his opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896)
“Harlan’s view, so lonely in its time, is now unquestioningly accepted. And in areas well beyond civil rights, his dissenting opinions proved far more durable and prescient than the court majorities.”
—Peter S. Canellos,
reporter for The Boston Globe
||Centre's John Marshall Harlan praised as civil rights pioneer
RELEASED: March 5, 2009
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, 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 a February 26 column in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Dan Venters reinforces this view: "[In a time of segregation] one Kentuckian stood apart and shines in the light of history…In case after case, Harlan stood as a lonely dissenter, urging the court and the nation to keep the promise of the Declaration and the equal rights amendment…"
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."
Canellos points out that the validity and forward-looking nature of Harlan's opinions were not restricted to the area of civil rights: "[His] view, so lonely in its time, is now unquestioningly accepted. And in areas well beyond civil rights, his dissenting opinions prove far more durable and prescient than the court majorities."
While segregation remained the law of the land during Harlan's lifetime, his writings provided a legal framework that others would use in the mid-20th century to establish the principle of equality under the law irrespective of race. The turning point of this struggle was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of that found "separate to be inherently unequal" and provided the legal basis for requiring the integration of public schools and a variety of public accommodations.
Another Centre alumnus, Fred Vinson, Class of 1909, also played an important role in this decision during his tenure as Chief Justice of the United States from 1946 until his death in 1953. Rulings by the Vinson-led Supreme Court were key in undercutting prior court precedents that supported segregation, and they helped pave the way for the nation-changing decision that would occur in 1954.
Then Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted the contributions of both men in a 2004 commencement address in the College's Norton Center for the Arts: "Centre College graduates have a proud tradition of public service and dedication to the good of the nation," O'Connor said, referring to Vinson and Harlan. "Each left an enduring mark [on the Supreme Court]. They were two of the key architects of a special kind of bridge. That was the bridge to what some people called the most important decision of the modern Supreme Court – Brown v. Board of Education."
The College honored Harlan in 1994 by establishing the John Marshall Harlan Professorship in Government. The official catalog description of the professorship notes that Harlan is "widely acclaimed as one of the Supreme Court's greatest justices." As America moves forward into the 21st century – far from fading – Harlan's reputation as "the great dissenter" seems to be growing ever greater.
The Harlan Professorship in Government has been held by Bill Garriott since 2005.
To read the Canellos article in The Boston Globe, click here.
To read the Venters article in the The Lexington Herald Leader, click here.
To read a biographical sketch on Harlan by the late Charles Lee, click here.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. 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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