Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: It's Good to Remember

Monday, February 23, 2009

It's Good to Remember

I stumbled over an intriguing story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune today. A couple of weeks ago, two descendants of Plessy and Ferguson dedicated a plaque in New Orleans to commemorate the Supreme Court case that immortalized their names.

Plessy v. Ferguson, in case you don't remember from history classes, was the case in which Homer Plessy, a man reportedly of one-eighth black ancestry, was arrested for riding on a train in the white car instead of the black car. He had been recruited by the New Orleans Citizens' Committee, a proto-Civil Rights organization, to be the subject of a test case in 1892. The case was first taken in front of Judge John Howard Ferguson in New Orleans, where Plessy was found guilty. The Citizens' Committee appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Times-Picayune perhaps summed the situation up best: "Everything the committee plotted went as planned -- except for the final court decision." Intriguingly, the Court was made up mostly of Northerners, but in a 7-1 decision (with one abstention), it ruled that keeping races apart in separate train cars wasn't unconstitutional. Sure, all men may be created equal, but that doesn't mean they have to sit next to each other! The decision stated that the Louisiana law upheld legal equality and that social equality was not the law's concern. One Southerner, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, was the sole dissenting vote, predicting that, regardless of the Court's intent, the decision would lead to greater and greater differences between the races. The loss of the case in the Supreme Court devastated the New Orleans Citizens' Committee, which disbanded some time later. But their position, of course, was ultimately vindicated sixty years later when the Court reversed itself in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Times-Picayune story was about reconciliation. The descendants of the case's original namesakes, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, have formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. They were largely responsible for the ceremony marking the debut of the historical marker. Here's the front of the marker, and the back.


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