Republican Senators opposed the nomination of John Marshall Harlan… to the Supreme Court in 1877. They read his record as a Democratic activist and McClellan supporter in 1864 as clear signs he would be hostile to their agenda. President Rutherford B. Hayes lobbied heavily for his nominee and confirmation finally came in November of 1877. Reconstruction was crumbling all over the South- the Supreme Court was going to be drawn into the great debate over civil rights for former slaves.
Harlan evolved into an unlikely defender of civil rights… for black Americans. The Court struck down major pieces of Reconstruction with its Civil Rights Cases decision in 1883. Harlan voiced the lone dissent in support of Congressional authority in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Plessy v. Ferguson infamously paved the way for public segregation all over the South- Harlan again provided the only dissent:
“But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved….The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”
John Marshall Harlan is forever known… as the “Great Dissenter” in the annals of US History. He stood as the lone voice of reason as the country slid into the murky depths of segregation. Commentators in today’s media should not paint all historical figures with such a broad brush. Nor should they only laud the most radical advocates of a cause as the only commendable voices. Harlan should be remembered…