GEORGETOWN, KY – As part of Georgetown College’s Celebration of Black History Month, Dr. Ed Smith, Ph.D., performs as Boyle County native John Marshall Harlan, the Great Dissenter (1833-1911), on Tuesday, February 26, 7 p.m., in the Ward Room of the Ensor Learning Resource Center. It is a Kentucky Chautauqua Performance, open to the public, free of charge. Professor Smith Chairs the Department of Theatre & Performance Studies.
During his 33-year tenure as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Harlan dissented in some of the Court’s most important civil rights cases, earning him the aforementioned title. In one of the most famous dissents in the history of the Court, Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of segregation, Harlan wrote: “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows or tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
His words were an inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement to Thurgood Marshall, NAACP chief counsel who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Marshall cited the dissent as he argued to end segregation in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education.
Though Harlan was born in Boyle County to a prominent slaveholding family, and was once a slaveholder himself, he fought for the Union during the Civil War after graduating from Centre College and earning his law degree at Transylvania. As he became involved in Kentucky politics – being elected County Judge of Franklin and Kentucky Attorney General, and running two unsuccessful campaigns for governor in the early 1870s – his political leanings shifted, and he became a major force in the Republican Party.
Harlan was often chastised for contradicting himself politically, being once a slaveholder and later one of slavery’s biggest opponents. But he always maintained that the law afforded him the right to change his mind – and his support for equal rights after the Civil War never waned.