Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911) served on the United States Supreme Court from 1877-1911. He may be best remembered for writing the lone dissent to the Court's notorious 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that racial segregation was legal and constitutional. Harlan's dissent, a moving invocation of the principle of racial equality under the law, became a beacon of hope to civil rights advocates during the dark days of Jim Crow in America. "In view of the Constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
Yet even in writing this defense of racial equality, Justice Harlan made one argument that revealed the depths of anti-Chinese prejudice in nineteenth-century America. Jim Crow was unfair, Harlan wrote, because it was wrong to treat American blacks worse than Chinese. "There is a race so different to our own," Harlan wrote, "that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the State and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by members of the white race."