Washington — Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is poised to grant a posthumous pardon Wednesday for Homer Plessy, whose refusal in 1892 to leave a Whites-only railcar led the Supreme Court to uphold state racial segregation laws in what is considered to be one of its most shameful decisions.
Edwards, a Democrat, will sign the pardon during a ceremony in New Orleans after the Louisiana Board of Pardons unanimously voted in November to clear Plessy’s record more than a century after his arrest. Descendants of Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who initially upheld the state’s segregation law, forged a friendship and advocated for the posthumous pardon.
The now-infamous case dates back to June 7, 1892, when Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker who was one-eighth Black, purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway and sat in a seat in the car assigned for White passengers. Plessy, then 30 years old, was arrested and charged with violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which required railway companies to provide “equal but separate accommodations” for White and Black passengers.
Plessy’s act was organized by the Comité des Citoyens, a New Orleans civil rights group, to test the constitutionality of the law. Violators of the law were subject to a $25 fine or imprisonment.
Plessy argued the Louisiana law violated the 14th Amendment, but Ferguson ruled against him. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Ferguson’s decision, and Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, composed of nine White men, heard arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson on April 13, 1896. One month later, the justices ruled 7-1 against Plessy.
The court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Henry Billings Brown, found the Separate Car Act did not violate the Constitution and upheld the principle of racial segregation, enabling the enforcement of a slew of segregation laws across the South.
While Brown did not use the phrase “separate but equal” in the majority opinion, he wrote that laws permitting or requiring separation on the basis of race “do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.”
“Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation,” Brown wrote for the court. “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
Only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, and he warned that the decision by the court would “in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.”
“In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here,” Harlan wrote. “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.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, Plessy pleaded guilty in 1897 to violating the Separate Car Act and paid the $25 fine. He died March 1, 1925, the conviction still on his record.
The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the doctrine of separate but equal remained in place until 1954, when the high court overruled Plessy v. Ferguson in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.
In that unanimous decision finding racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the court that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”
Louisiana’s five-member Board of Pardons convened in November to vote to recommend the pardon for Plessy in a virtual hearing attended by Keith Plessy, Plessy’s distant cousin, and Phoebe Ferguson, Ferguson’s great-great-granddaughter. In remarks before the board, Keith Plessy said civil rights activists have referred to Homer Plessy as the “first Freedom Rider.”
“There is no doubt that he was guilty of that act on that date,” Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams said of Plessy violating the Separate Car Act. “But there is equally no doubt that such an act should have never been a crime in this country.”
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