A few years ago when I was teaching American History and in a section on the Supreme Court and “famous cases” I actually read the dissent of John Marshall Harlan in the case of “Plessy vs. Ferguson.” One man dissented in a time when the Supreme Court routinely upheld Jim Crow laws on a unanimous basis. I knew of Harlan’s dissent, but reading the dissent was like reading the prophets of the Old Testament. I wanted to know more about Harlan.
This past week I picked up a new biography on John Marshall Harlan to learn more about him.
The opening sentences by the biographer are intense and powerful:
There are silences in American history. The suppression of the US Constitution to impose legally enforced segregation, from the 1880s to the 1910s, is one of those hushed intervals. The decades of the Gilded Age were rigorously chronicled as a kind of rolling carnival, with the breathtaking excitement of industrial progress clashing with the grim reality of social regression, all to the tinkling tune of a player piano. But there was, between the lines, an untold story.
There are silences in American history. The winner all too often gets to tell the story… and we forget that story has gaps. The “wild success” of the Gilded Age and the advancement of industry and science isn’t the whole story.
For those claiming now that those “woke folk” are trying to “erase history”… consider this: we don’t know the whole story and it’s not so much an “erasing” as an ADDING that is going on… and we, as white folk, don’t want our comfort disturbed.
John Marshall Harlan seemed to be one white man willing to use his privilege to raise his voice. I am looking forward to his story.