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Tue Jun 8, 2021, 07:20 AM

The Black Hero Behind One of the Greatest Supreme Court Justices

Hat tip, SCOTUSblog


The morning read for Monday, June 7
By James Romoser on Jun 07, 2021 at 8:47 am

Each weekday, we select a short list of news articles, commentary, and other noteworthy links related to the Supreme Court. To suggest a piece for us to consider, email us at [email protected]

Here’s the Monday morning read:

Supreme Court begins its sprint to finish — and a decision by one justice might be the most important (Robert Barnes, The Washington Post)
A Supreme Court Case Poses a Threat to L.G.B.T.Q. Foster Kids (Stephen Vider & David S. Byers, The New York Times)
The Black Hero Behind One of the Greatest Supreme Court Justices (Peter Canellos, Politico)
Van Buren is a Victory Against Overbroad Interpretations of the CFAA, and Protects Security Researchers (Aaron Mackey & Kurt Opsahl)
Hugo Black’s Law Clerks Fought to Protect His ‘Little Piece of Eden’ ($) (Tony Mauro, The National Law Journal)


The Black Hero Behind One of the Greatest Supreme Court Justices

Before John Marshall Harlan became the sole judicial defender of Black rights of his time, he had a close association with a powerful Black leader who grew up enslaved in his home. Together, they showed how respect could transcend barriers and point a path to freedom.


06/06/2021 06:55 AM EDT

Peter S. Canellos is managing editor for enterprise at POLITICO. He is the author of The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America's Judicial Hero.

It was a gentle warning from a person with a shared history and a common set of references: “I beg to repeat to you the words of an old Colored man that formerly belonged to your father—they were do-do-take-care.”

The last four words were underlined to emphasize the message of concern: do-do-take-care.

The letter was written by Robert Harlan, the leading Black politician in Ohio, to John Marshall Harlan, the white future Supreme Court justice, on April 14, 1877. And it underscored an unlikely alliance that, though hidden from history, would help to keep a flicker of hope alive during the long, tortuous decades of segregation. John Marshall Harlan would become the court’s sole defender of Black rights, whose scorching dissents lit a path to the 20th century civil rights movement; Robert Harlan’s legacy would fade under the relentless repression engendered by the very decisions John fought against.


But Robert and John shared more than a last name. They had grown up in the same house. Each had watched the other rise to national prominence. They had come to express similar political sentiments.

There was also one difference: One of them, Robert, was born into slavery. But their relationship remained close enough that they strategized together in the days surrounding the 1876 Republican convention, which nominated the man who had just become president at the time the letter was sent, Rutherford B. Hayes. And some newspapers had reported as fact what had long been rumored: They had the same father.


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