A Supreme Court judge who went on to defend the civil rights that protected slavery

On March 19, 1906, in a horrific act of terror that had become very common in the South, a white mob descended on Chattanooga prison and dragged a young black man out of his cell. The man, Ed Johnson, had already been sentenced to death for sexually assaulting a white woman—despite the fact that he could not definitively identify Johnson, and was not even sure that his assailant was black. Or not.

The mob hauled Johnson to the city’s historic bridge and left his body to hang on the Tennessee River. But apparently killing him was not enough. The crowd began chanting the name of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who had stayed the execution, while the Supreme Court reviewed the details of Johnson’s case. A note pinned to Johnson’s body contained a taunt, one entitled impunity: “To Chief Harlan. Here’s your Negro. Thank you for your warm consideration of him. You can find him in the morgue.”

Anyone who encountered Harlan several decades ago would find it hard to believe that he had become a target of white supremacists. Born in Kentucky in 1833 to a prominent slave family, Harlan freed those he himself had held captive, only after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which he opposed. When he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1877, it was considered a recourse to the South. Republicans, who at the time belonged to the anti-slavery party, generally distrusted him, with one of them calling him a “flattering friend and soliciting tool” of anti-Reconstruction forces.

But Harlan turned out to be a staunch supporter of civil rights. He was often the only dissenting voice on the Supreme Court, whose ruling – which included the infamous “separate but equal” ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson – essentially left Jim Crow to Black Southerners. Frederick Douglass praised Harlan as a “moral hero” and Thurgood Marshall later cited him as an inspiration. In a new biography of Harlan, “The Great Dissenter,” Peter S. Canelos—an editor at Politico and author of a biography of Ted Kennedy—says that Americans do not yet fully appreciate this personal and political change, if They even recognize Harlan’s name at all.

Despite what Canelos describes as Harlan’s shocking “conscience”—crafting dissent that contradicted the widespread prejudices of his time and resonated with later generations—Harlan had a greater place in the public imagination. do not capture. The literature of his life mainly includes: academic Biography. This new book is a worthy addition: Solidly accessible and thoroughly researched, it makes a persuasive case for Harlan’s importance and reads like a mystery at times. We live in a time when it can be difficult for people to escape the words and actions of their past selves. What to do with a man who, in the words of a supporter of his appointment to the Supreme Court, “removed his old pro-slavery skin”?

Given his unlikely political trajectory, Harlan was faced with a predictable charge of opportunism—that he only realized how the political winds were blowing after the Civil War and calibrated his practical self accordingly. But Canelos recognizes an unbroken thread running through Harlan’s life. Judge lived a lifelong hatred of national divisions—it’s just that his understanding of who was responsible for the most fractals of those divisions would change according to his experiences. His conversion was barely won because of civil rights.

Like his father, Harlan was so opposed to the struggle that he criticized the abolitionists of slavery and the most brutal of slaves, while insisting that the question of slavery should be left to the states. But in the lead up to the Civil War, they began to recognize how compromise, in practice, often meant surrender. lofty ambitions Slave power. The border state Kentucky had declared neutrality before the Union invasion. Harlan announced his decision to fight for the Union, appealing to “the cause of human liberty”—a reference which, Canelos acknowledged, “may have come as a shock to those who had just two years earlier had lost their lives to John.” to protect the rights of slave owners.”

Canelos lives on first name terms with “John”, and a good deal of “The Great Dissenter” is also devoted to the life story of “Robert”—of being the son of Robert Harlan, John’s father and a slave woman. Rumor has it, even though John and Robert consistently “maintained a polite silence on the subject.”

John and Robert had a relationship that by all indications was full of mutual respect; Robert, seeing the kind of privileges other enslaved people in the Harlan family were deprived of, made a fortune in horse racing and the gold rush. (The book is chock full of horse racing details, not necessarily all.) Canelos argues that a closer look at Robert’s extraordinary achievements was bound to have an impact on John and his jurisprudence.

The arc of Canelos’ narrative leaning toward justice is comforting, with the long Jim Crow era finally bowing to Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He mentions but ignores the legacy of Harlan’s grandson John Marshall Harlan II, who himself served not as a “great dissident”, but as a conservative justice on the Warren Supreme Court.

Canelos is protective of his biographical subject, pressing to cast a charitable sheen on some of Harlan’s more disturbing comments from the bench, particularly what Harlan calls the “Chinese race”. You also understand that Canelos wants to believe that the Supreme Court still reflects “the logical progress of a man whose top priority has always been the preservation of American ideals,” even though some observers Direction taken by the present Court otherwise argued.

At one point in his research, Canelos tracked down Robert Harlan, a descendant of Robert Jackson Harlan Jr., who had come of age as a black man under segregation. “You know, I’ve always liked stories with happy endings,” he told Canelos, before adding: “On the other hand, it ends either whether you like it or not.”

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