A Supreme Court Justice Who Moved From Defending Slavery to Championing Civil Rights

On March 19, 1906, in a horrific act of terror that had develop into all too widespread within the South, a white mob descended on a Chattanooga jail and dragged a younger Black man from his cell. The man, Ed Johnson, had already been sentenced to loss of life for sexually assaulting a white girl — even if she couldn’t definitively establish Johnson, and wasn’t even certain if her assailant was Black.

The mob strung Johnson up to the town’s landmark bridge and left his physique to dangle over the Tennessee River. But murdering him apparently wasn’t sufficient. The crowd began chanting the identify of John Marshall Harlan, the Supreme Court justice who had issued a keep of execution whereas the very best court docket reviewed the small print of Johnson’s case. A observe pinned to Johnson’s physique bore a taunt that exuded an entitled impunity: “To Chief Harlan. Here is your Negro. Thanks for your kind consideration of him. You can find him at the morgue.”

Anybody who had encountered Harlan a number of many years earlier than would have had a tough time believing he had develop into the goal of white supremacists. Born in 1833 to a outstanding slaveholding household in Kentucky, Harlan freed the folks he himself held in bondage solely after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which he had opposed. When he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1877, it was thought-about a sop to the South. Republicans, who belonged to what was the antislavery occasion on the time, typically mistrusted him, with considered one of them calling him “the sycophantic friend and supplicant tool” of anti-Reconstruction forces.

But Harlan turned out to be a stalwart proponent of civil rights. He was usually the lone dissenting voice on a Supreme Court whose selections — which included the infamous “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson — basically deserted Black Southerners to Jim Crow. Frederick Douglass praised Harlan as a “moral hero,” and Thurgood Marshall would later cite him as an inspiration. In a brand new biography of Harlan, “The Great Dissenter,” Peter S. Canellos — an editor at Politico and the creator of a biography of Ted Kennedy — says that Americans don’t but totally admire this private and political transformation, in the event that they even acknowledge Harlan’s identify in any respect.

Despite what Canellos describes as Harlan’s startling “prescience” — crafting dissents that refuted the widespread prejudices of his personal time and resonated with later generations — Harlan doesn’t occupy a lot of a spot within the public creativeness. The literature of his life has consisted primarily of educational biographies. This new e-book is a worthy addition: Solidly accessible and totally researched, it makes a persuasive case for Harlan’s significance and typically reads like a thriller. We stay at a second when it may be tough for folks to escape the phrases and deeds of their earlier selves. What to make of a person who, within the approving phrases of 1 supporter of his appointment to the Supreme Court, had “sloughed off his old pro-slavery skin”?

Given his unlikely political trajectory, Harlan confronted a predictable cost of opportunism — that he had merely sensed which manner the political winds had been blowing after the Civil War and calibrated his pragmatic self accordingly. But Canellos discerns an unbroken thread working by means of Harlan’s life. The decide harbored a lifelong abhorrence of nationwide divisions — it’s simply that his understanding of who was answerable for essentially the most fractious of these divisions would change in accordance to his experiences. His conversion to the civil rights trigger was hard-won.

Like his father, Harlan was so averse to battle that he criticized each the abolitionists and the cruelest of enslavers, whereas insisting that the query of slavery needs to be left up to the states. But within the lead up to the Civil War, he began to acknowledge how compromise, in follow, usually meant capitulation to the voracious ambitions of the Slave Power. Kentucky, a border state, had declared neutrality earlier than the Confederacy invaded. Harlan introduced his choice to combat for the Union by interesting to “the cause of human liberty” — a reference that, Canellos concedes, “may have jarred those who just two years earlier had heard John talk of protecting the rights of slave owners.”

The Supreme Court: Upcoming Cases

A Big Month. June is peak season for Supreme Court selections. It is the ultimate month of the court docket’s annual time period, and the justices have a tendency to save their largest selections for the time period’s finish.four Big Cases. The court docket is ready to rule on the destiny of Obamacare, in addition to a case that would decide scores of legal guidelines addressing election guidelines within the coming years. It can be taking up a case involving faith and homosexual rights and one on whether or not college students could also be disciplined for what they are saying on social media (right here’s an audio report on that topic; and right here’s the place public opinion stands on a number of of the massive instances).What to Watch For. The approaches that Amy Coney Barrett, the latest justice, and Brett Kavanaugh, the second-newest, take. They will probably be essential as a result of the three liberal justices now want no less than two of the six conservatives to type a majority. Before the loss of life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberals wanted just one conservative.Looking Ahead. Next 12 months’s time period, which is able to begin within the fall, may have instances on abortion, weapons and maybe affirmative motion, and might find yourself being essentially the most vital time period to date beneath Chief Justice John Roberts.

Canellos retains on first-name phrases with “John” all through, and a great deal of “The Great Dissenter” can be devoted to the life story of “Robert” — Robert Harlan, rumored to be the son of John’s father and an enslaved girl, regardless that John and Robert persistently “maintained a polite silence on the subject.”

John and Robert had a relationship that, from all indications, was crammed with mutual respect; Robert, given the sort of prerogatives denied different enslaved folks within the Harlan family, made a fortune in horse racing and the gold rush. (There’s a glut of horse-racing element on this e-book, not all of it important.) Canellos argues that seeing Robert’s extraordinary accomplishments up shut was certain to impact John and his jurisprudence.

The arc of Canellos’s narrative is reassuring, bending towards justice, with the lengthy Jim Crow period finally yielding to Brown v. Board and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He mentions however doesn’t dwell on the legacy of Harlan’s grandson John Marshall Harlan II, who served as a “great dissenter” himself, however as a conservative justice on the Warren Supreme Court.

Canellos is protecting of his biographical topic, straining to put a charitable gloss on a few of Harlan’s extra troubling feedback from the bench, particularly concerning what Harlan referred to as “the Chinese race.” You additionally sense that Canellos needs to consider that the very best court docket nonetheless displays “the logical progression of a man whose top priority had always been the preservation of American ideals,” even when some observers of the course taken by the present Court have argued in any other case.

At one level in his analysis, Canellos tracked down a descendant of Robert Harlan, Robert Jackson Harlan Jr., who got here of age as a Black man beneath segregation. “You know, I always liked the stories with happy endings,” he informed Canellos, earlier than including: “On the other hand, it ends the way it’s gonna end whether you like it or not.”