In many peoples eyes, John Marshall Harlan did not accomplish much in his life. In fact, he didn’t do much to change the course of history either. However, when you look at this man, you must acknowledge him for being a powerful symbol in his lifetime. This was the only man on the Supreme Court who knew segregation was wrong and who didn’t let his “white supremacy” get in the way of the law. He, just like most whites in his day, believed that the white race is the superior race and yet he was a man who did not let his personal judgment sway his interpretation of facts. I do not suggest that he is remembered as an icon for African American rights but I really respect him for staying true to his profession and having integrity in doing what was right.
John came from a large and prominent slaveholding family that was very powerful in it’s area as early as 1779. It seems contradictory that he would then do a full 180 and argue for black rights. Again, I must emphasize, he did not argue that all men are equal, he simply and powerfully argued that all men are equal under law. He was the sole voice of reason in a court that defeated a Civil Rights Act that had to wait 100 years before being put in place again. He did what he did because he wasn’t easily swept up by public opinion and his peers. He did what he did because he had the best intentions for the country and bitterly fought to express them. That is why he deserves to be remembered.
The two questions I would ask him:
What motivated you to rule the way you did while on the Supreme Court?
Did you believe the white race was truly the superior race or did you believe that it is superior temporarily and the other races will catch up?