Serving on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than 33 years, John Marshall Harlan was known as “the great dissenter,”

particularly in his support for “equal but separate” rights for African Americans.

He is most notable as the lone dissenter in the famous 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld Southern segregation statutes.

The second longest serving justice, 1877-1911, he was the first Supreme Court justice to earn a modern law degree. His 33 years on the court was later eclipsed by William O. Douglas, Whitman 1920 (37 years, 7 months.)

Born in 1833 into a prominent Kentucky slaveholding family, his father was a well-known state politician and former congressman.

He attended Centre College in Danville, Ky., where he pledged Epsilon chapter, which was chartered by Beta Theta Pi in 1848 while he was an undergraduate.

After graduating from Centre, he earned a law degree from Transylvania College and joined his father’s law practice in 1852. He was a Whig as was his father.

After the party’s dissolution, he participated in several parties, including the Know Nothings.

He was elected county judge of Franklin County, Ky., in 1858. He enlisted in the Union Army when war broke out in 1861, rising to the rank of colonel.

Throughout the war he firmly supported slavery, at one point stating he would resign his post if President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. After service, he returned home and resumed his law career.

He was elected Attorney General of Kentucky in 1863; and, in 1868, he joined the Republican party, turning strongly against slavery, calling it “the most perfect despotism that ever existed on this earth.”

He ran for governor in 1872 and 1875, losing both times. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1877 by President Rutherford B.

Hayes, he supplemented his income while serving on the court by teaching Constitutional Law at a night school which became part of George Washington University.

Harlan earned his reputation as “the great dissenter” as the Court moved away from interpreting the Reconstruction Amendments to protect African Americans.

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