Several times a week, I pass by the statue of Melville Fuller outside the old Kennebec County Courthouse.  It’s a curious structure — the silver-haired Fuller is robed and seated, and during the winter he often sports a hat. The only monument to Maine’s judicial system, the statue honors the Augusta native for his 21 years as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, from 1888 until his death in 1910.

But should Justice Fuller continue to preside over State Street? As a historian who teaches and writes about the history of race in America, I think the answer clearly is no. Given his record as chief justice, Fuller has not earned the honor.

I often caution my students about unfairly applying contemporary standards upon the past. We must deal with the past on its own terms. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should suspend judgment. We can — and we must — examine people such as Fuller in the full context of their time. When we do so, we find that Fuller, and the court that he led, were part of a radically reactionary movement to undo the egalitarian achievements of Reconstruction. Their success in gutting Reconstruction did serious, lasting damage to our country.

Reconstruction was a remarkable, if short-lived, attempt to rebuild the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. Led by “Radical” Republicans such as Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (and supported by moderate Maine Republicans such as Sens. Lot Morrill and William Fessenden), Congress enacted a legal revolution in the form of three constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment officially ended slavery; the 14th Amendment defined national citizenship and enshrined equality before the law as a constitutional principle; and the 15th Amendment protected Black male suffrage.

Emboldened by the Union victory and support from Radical Republicans, formerly enslaved people built schools, churches, and other community institutions. They voted and ran for office — and often won. Black men served in elected office from local school boards on up to the U.S. Senate. During Reconstruction, America enjoyed a brief flowering of interracial democracy.

These biracial state governments were overthrown by homegrown terrorism backed by governmental force. And the Supreme Court provided legal cover for it. Beginning with its decision in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases and accelerating in the 1890s and 1900s, the court systematically reversed Reconstruction-era gains. Under Fuller’s leadership, writes Columbia University’s Eric Foner, the preeminent history of the era, “the Supreme Court’s retreat from Reconstruction reached high tide.”

The Court undermined the 13th Amendment by allowing Southern governments to use prisoners as unpaid labor in a system labeled “slavery by another name.” It distorted the 14th Amendment into a defense of corporate personhood, rather than the rights of minorities. It acquiesced as Southern governments eviscerated the 15th amendment by effectively disenfranchising Black voters. And in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) it threw its weight behind the White South’s efforts to segregate people by race.

A broad, interracial coalition of Americans fought this effort to re-impose white supremacy across the South. They urged Fuller and the Court to defend equality for all. Fuller chose to ignore those voices. He instead embraced the opposite position that white Southerners should be free to discriminate against and disfranchise Black citizens.

The court’s decisions, Plessy in particular, generated significant protest at the time, and not just from civil rights activists. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slaveholder, offered a stinging dissent in Plessy. “Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” Harlan wrote. “In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.” Justice Harlan was right. This was a terrible decision, and many people at the time knew it.

White supremacists succeeded in the 1880s and 1890s, and we as a nation have had to live with the consequences of entrenched racial inequality. But we do not have to celebrate their victories, and we should not honor people such as Melville Fuller who aided and abetted them.

Fuller does not reflect our values as a community or our ideals as a nation. His statue should be removed from public grounds. Doing so does not “erase” history. Instead, it shows that we have learned from it.

Chris Myers Asch, of Hallowell, teaches history at Colby College and runs the Capital Area New Mainers Project.


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