Anniversary Post: Plessy v Ferguson

Homer PlessyOn this day in 1892, Homer Plessy refused to relinquish his seat in a “whites only” train car. This led to Plessy v Ferguson — one of the most infamous Supreme Court cases ever that enshrined “separate but equal” in law for the next 58 years. It used to annoy me that Sarah Palin couldn’t even name this one case when asked to name a Supreme Court case she disagreed with other than Roe v Wade. It is a case I first learned of in high school. But I later realized that Palin probably doesn’t disagree with Plessy v Ferguson — except in the sense that it is a case that is now universally vilified. The reasoning in the case is fully consistent with modern conservative thinking.

In my previous educational encounters with this case, I never read about the specifics of it. And they are quite interesting. To start with, this was not a case of a man just happening to be in the “wrong” place and causing a ruckus. Rather it was just like it would later be with Rosa Parks. The African American civil rights group Comité des Citoyens (French: Citizens Committee) was looking for a way to challenge the recently passed Louisiana Separate Car Act, which mandated separate but equal train cars. So the Comité chose Homer Plessy.

One of the reasons that Plessy was chosen was that he was 7/8ths white — an “octoroon.” So he could “pass.” This allowed him to purchase a ticket on a “whites only” train car. When the conductor came by, Plessy told him that he was 7/8ths white that that he refused to move to the “blacks only” train car. And the rest, as they say, is literally history. According to Wikipedia, “Everything that the committee had organized occurred as planned, except for the decision of the Supreme Court in 1896.” Of course, the Comité knew it was likely to lose.

The problem was the Supreme Court as an institution is dedicated to preserving the power of the powerful. For people of my age, that sounds wrong. We saw a lot of good work by the Court over the last 60 years. But really, that was the exception. What the Court is now is more in keeping with what it has traditionally been. Even if the court were filled with Elena Kagans, it would hardly be liberal; it would be more for the status quote. As it was, the Supreme Court found against Plessy by a vote of 7-1. In Ian Millhiser’s list of The Five Worst Supreme Court Justices In American History, two of them found with the majority on Plessy v Ferguson: Stephen J Field (#1) and Melville Fuller (#4).

The lone dissenter was John Marshall Harlan who said — correctly — that Plessy v Ferguson would be remembered as infamously as Dred Scott v Sandford. But lest you think that we should consider Plessy v Ferguson as typical of the time, remember that Harlan’s argument (apart from his own ethnocentrism) is remarkably modern:

We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.

What’s sad is that three current justices certainly, four probably, and five possibly would find against Plessy if this kind of explicit segregation were still an issue. That’s what’s so dangerous about this court. The conservatives are loons, but they are extremely smart and creative loons.

We mark this day when the African American community organized to protect their civil rights, but lost — to our nation’s great shame.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Plessy v Ferguson

  1. Wonderful for two reasons. One, I never knew the first thing about this case, or how it was a planned protest (although, by now, I should have.) But then again I never knew a dang thing about Dred Scott until a few years ago. I just search-engined “Comite des Citoyens” and there are a few groups with that name today! Looks like some are in Quebec, working for social equality and the environment. Makes sense; Cajun and French-Canadian cultures have shared roots (I believe “Cajun” comes from “Canadian.”)

    Two: that link to “worst Supreme Court justices.” I could have done without Thomas at the end — you could pick a lot of modern-era justices for that spot, and it was more enlightening to read about the historical ones. What an amazing bunch of loons! Taney’s photo looks like something from a horror movie. And this about McReynolds:

    “On the rare occasions when a woman argued a case before McReynolds’s Court, the justice would exclaim “I see the female is here” and walk out of the Courtroom.”

    For more fun, I found McReynolds listed on something called “Conservapedia: The Trustworthy Encyclopedia.” They mention Reynolds’s anti-Semitism, but . . . not the sexism, surprise. It does say “Reynolds never married.” So at least he did some good to some person, somewhere, by not marrying her!

    • Yeah, I was really interested to learn the story too. It would make a great book.

      I think it was fine to highlight Thomas. The current court is as bad as any one we’ve had. And I thought his justification for it was good. I’m waiting for Millhiser’s book to come in. It is taking forever because the library only purchased one copy initially (they recently ordered two more).

      Conservapedia is a hoot! It has got to be a great embarrassment to the few remaining old school conservatives. Basically, it is a Christian fundamentalist website more than a political one. Of course, there isn’t a lot that separates the two at this point. Check out the page on Evolution. These people are really sad, but they will apparently always be with us. We can only hope that they will not always control one of the major American political parties.

      • Oh, Thomas was fine, I just wanted to read more horror stories about guys I didn’t know already. And my library has that book too, so soon enough, I will!

        That evolution thing . . . “oofta,” as the locals say. (It’s polite Midwestern for WTF.) Makes me happy I give logicked a dollar a month. I got as far as the quote saying biology teachers are hesitant to teach evolution, as though that proves biology teachers think evolution is wrong! Duh, I wonder why biology teachers are scared. I dunno.

        • I’m really looking forward to the book. I’ve been waiting since a year before it was published. I really like Millhiser’s work on labor unions. I think that’s how he got into writing about the Supreme Court, because it was used so much to stifle unions.

          In writing, “Oofta” still looks like a acronym and everyone knows what “F” in an acronym always means. AFL now stands for “Americans F*@ked Lately.”

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