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In 1864 John Stewart Rock became the first African American permitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1864 John Stewart Rock became the first African American permitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)

The opening line of Ayn Rand’s epic tome, “Atlas Shrugged” queries, “Who is John Galt?” Galt represents to many the quintessential rugged individualist who attests, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The same might be said about a 19th-century rugged individual named John Stewart Rock.

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Rock was born near Salem, New Jersey in 1825. He is best known for becoming the first African American permitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Rock’s untimely death in 1866 prevented him from ever enjoying that privilege.

Christopher Brooks
Christopher Brooks (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

A building block for his sense of ruggedness may be where he grew up. First, Salem County, despite its Quaker roots, is one of the five New Jersey counties situated below the Mason-Dixon line. So the institution of slavery was not far away. An 1836 issue of Salem’s Messenger newspaper reported a scene indicative of how real slavery was to the region.

A “large ‘strapping’ black-man,” claiming to be a chimney sweep, suspected of “being a spy for some slave holder” sent to locate runaway slaves, was flogged by “about a dozen black-women, with sticks … dealing blows unmercifully while about twenty-five black men leisurely looking on (no doubt enjoying the sport).”

Rock’s sense of rugged individualism manifested itself in a number of ways: persistence in becoming a physician, tenacity in framing a “Black is Beautiful” concept before the Civil War, and his instance of his being worthy to argue before our nation’s highest court.

After being rejected from medical school because of his race, Rock studied dentistry while teaching at a Quaker school (and eventually placing in a Philadelphia competition for dentures). The Reformed Medical College of Philadelphia (now defunct) accepted him to study medicine. Rock earned his medical degree in 1852.

His 1858 speech, “I Will Sink or Swim with my Race,” ruggedly blazed a path conceptualizing the idea of “Black is Beautiful” over a century before the phrasing became commonplace. On Crispus Attucks Day (March 5th), Rock took the stage with other prominent abolitionists of his day, such as William Cooper Nell, William Lloyd Garrison, and Theodore Parker. Rock began, refuting the common 19th-century trope that Blacks “are cowards.”

He then went on to boldly speak about slavery, the behaviors of Anglo-Saxons, and the beauty of the Black race, quipping: “When I contrast the fine tough muscular system, the beautiful, rich color, the full broad features, and the gracefully frizzled hair of the negro, with the delicate physical organization, wan color, sharp features and lank hair of the Caucasian, I am inclined to believe that when the white man was created, nature was pretty well exhausted ― but determined to keep up appearances, she pinched up his features, and did the best she could under the circumstances.”

Rock also demonstrated a dogged determination to become a member of the Supreme Court bar, which allowed him to argue before the high court.

To become a Supreme Court bar member, one needs to have practiced law in good standing for three years and gain the recommendation of a Supreme Court bar member. Rock gained the respect of anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner, enough so that Sumner would support Rock’s application for permission to argue before the court.

Rock completed his third year in 1864, the same year Chief Justice Roger Taney died. Taney was the one who announced in the case of Scott v. Sanford that Blacks had been regarded for more than a century as “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Unsurprisingly, Rock wrote to Sumner in a March 1864 that “the old man lives out of spite.”

By October, the spite had apparently run its course. Sadly for Taney’s friends and family, the chief justice passed away.

That led to a series of letters between Rock and Sumner, with Rock’s sense of urgency increasingly more palpable with each one. Finally, On Feb. 1, 1865, Rock was sworn in as the first African American permitted to argue before the Supreme Court.

In “Atlas Shrugged,” John Galt remarks, “I have never felt guilty of my ability. I have never felt guilty of being a man. I accepted no unearned guilt, and thus was free to earn and to know my own value.”

John S. Rock was certainly a man who could say the same.

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Christopher Brooks is a professor of history at East Stroudsburg University.

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