Melville Fuller, the Maine-born U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1888 to 1910, is a stain on America’s judicial history. That’s not my opinion. That is the opinion of his descendant, Robert G. Fuller, Junior. Specifically, Robert Fuller believes that Justice Fuller’s decision to uphold racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson was a stain on his family’s legal honor. Yet Robert spent $40,000 to erect a statue of Justice Fuller in front of the Kennebec County Courthouse in 2013.
As an organizer of the protest group Maine Against Systemic Racism (M.A.S.R.), I learned in August 2020 that the Kennebec County Commissioners had been deliberating whether or not to remove the statue, and if so, what will be done with it. Reports at the time revealed that Maine’s judicial branch asked the Commissioners to review the statue and its location. In September, M.A.S.R. staged a rally at the courthouse to pressure the Commissioners to call a meeting to discuss its removal.
Melville Fuller’s legacy is not just separate water fountains. By upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Fuller Court made white supremacy the law of the land and gave states the capacity to enforce it through policing powers which created a system we still live under to this day.
Those photos and videos of people being beaten, hosed and attacked by dogs? Melville Fuller deserves a share of the blame for that.
When you see those pictures of the Whites Only signs; when you read statistics about the racial wealth gap caused by redlining and underfunded schools and the cycle of generational poverty that they fuel; when you hear stories about white anger — the mutilations, the torture, the firebombings, the death squads, the public executions, the terrorism; when you see those images on your screen of police officers who don’t live in the city that they police and are covered head to toe in tactical gear while armored vehicles patrol the streets, just remember that’s part of a LONG tradition of decisions to empower white supremacy through state policing which the court that Melville Fuller presided over could have stopped.
The Commissioners finally put removing the segregationist’s statue on the agenda for December of 2020. M.A.S.R. organized community members to provide written testimony and I appeared in person. I was amazed to witness Robert G. Fuller, Jr., the descendent who paid for the statue, represented by two lawyers at the meeting.
In an apparent effort to normalize Mel’s white supremacist background, Robert and his lawyers like to tell the anecdote of how Fuller was the Chief Justice who created the tradition of the justices shaking hands before a hearing.
What that anecdote leaves out is why some justices probably didn’t want to shake hands. President Grover Cleveland’s first appointment to the Supreme Court was an actual member of the Confederacy. And Fuller, Cleveland’s second pick, was sympathetic to the Confederacy as well. Mel really didn’t like Lincoln or abolitionists or the idea of freeing slaves in general. Specifically, he felt “[t]he Emancipation Proclamation is predicated upon the idea that the President may so annul the constitutions and laws of sovereign states, overthrow their domestic relations, deprive loyal men of their property, and disloyal as well, without trial or condemnation.”
“Deprive loyal men of their property.” What property might they be being deprived of in the 1860s, I wonder?
It was Black people. As a member of the Chicago state legislature, Melville Fuller labeled the Emancipation Proclamation “unconstitutional, contrary to the rules of civilized warfare,” and “calculated to bring shame, disgrace and eternal infamy” upon the nation. He also backed a constitutional amendment preventing congressional interference with slavery and voted to prohibit black men and women from settling in Illinois or casting a ballot in its elections. And he served as the campaign manager of Lincoln’s chief political opponent, Stephen Douglas.
So, Mel didn’t just preside over a white supremacist court that issued decisions which created second class citizens out of every nonwhite person it could (Fuller’s court also wrote the decision declining to classify Puerto Ricans as citizens), he was himself a white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer.
And Justice Fuller was no ally to labor. He worked to entrench wealth and power at any given opportunity. His court exempted most of the sugar trade (which is powered off the exploitation of — you guessed it — the labor and resources of Black and Indigenious people) from antitrust laws, overturned a law that would have kept bakeries from overworking employees, and killed the first attempt to establish an income tax.
Yet Robert Fuller and his lawyers defend placing Justice Fuller on a pedestal outside a seat of legal power, as if presiding over the Supreme Court that enshrined segregation should not be connected to who he was as a person or be extended to his statue.
The Commissioners took the issue under advisement. Organizing with two other groups, Central Maine Showing Up for Racial Justice and the Indivisible chapter of Kennebec County, we put out a second call for written testimony and letters. In February, the Commission voted unanimously in favor of removal.
Next the question became what would happen to the statue. The Commission formed a committee, which I joined, and held its first meeting in March, attended by Robert Fuller’s lawyer.
There was some discussion during this hearing about whether to give it back to Robert (my suggestion), whether to make room for it in the state museum’s archives or exhibit spaces, or whether to put it somewhere even more public and prominent than before such as outside of the Capitol building (Fuller’s idea). There was little agreement on what should be done with it.
Since then, I was asked my opinion on a proposal that would use Fuller’s statue as leverage to expand the state museum to include a Black History wing with Melville at the center to fully explain what his decision did. No doubt, there are the best of intentions behind this proposal, but Black history deserves to stand on its own in Maine; regardless of where the judicial father of Jim Crow’s statue ends up. Two weeks later, Robert offered to take the statue back and bear the costs of relocation himself. The Commissioners accepted the offer.
Removing the statue of Robert’s ancestor whose legacy is a stain on his family’s honor is now his responsibility, but since Melville Fuller was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his legal stain is also America’s to own.