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Louisiana man behind ‘separate but equal’ ruling pardoned 120 years later

Before granting a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy, Louisiana’s governor spoke of the “pernicious effects” of the 1896 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — With a New Orleans Public Belt Railroad engine and car behind him Wednesday morning, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards granted a posthumous pardon to the man whose civil rights demonstration led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling.

Edwards signed the pardon standing in the station where, in 1892, Homer Plessy famously refused to leave his seat in a "whites-only" train car. For his crime, Plessy was taken off the train and fined.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction 7-1 in the 1896 ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which became the basis for the separate but equal doctrine.

Before signing the pardon 120 years after Plessy was charged, Edwards read from the lone Supreme Court dissent from Justice John Marshall Harlan, who said the court’s judgment against Plessy “would prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the [1857] Dred Scott case,” which notoriously declared that no African American was entitled to U.S. citizenship, whether enslaved or free.

Edwards agreed with Harlan’s statement, remarking more than once that had it not been for Plessy v. Ferguson, we might be in a much different place now as a nation. Running through the definition for "pernicious" – bad, evil, harmful, wicked, malevolent – the governor said "the word perfectly fits” as a description of Plessy's case.

“The pernicious effects of Plessy linger still in terms of race relations, equality and justice,” Edwards said. “We are not where we should be, and quite frankly we’re not where we would have been had at least four other justices had the same fidelity to the Constitution [as Harlan had].”

Instead, the governor said, the justices ignored the Constitution and “ushered white supremacy in.”

The ruling “left a stain on the fabric of our society and on this state and on this city,” said Edwards. “And, quite frankly, those consequences are still felt today.”

Orleans Parish District Attorney, Jason Williams said during the pardon-signing event Wednesday that we still haven’t had a reconciliation for segregation in this country.

“I did not submit this pardon asking for Homer Plessy to be forgiven,” Williams said. “I submitted asking for us to be forgiven, the institution.”

He added, “We must reckon with our past. We must confront, we must acknowledge, and we must humbly ask for forgiveness for the role our legal institutions have played in the apartheid the people of this country have endured.”

A mural is seen in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, along the train tracks where Homer Plessy attempted to board a “whites-only” train car in protest of segregation in 1892. (Sabrina Canfield/Courthouse News)

Plessy was a French-speaking Creole born in New Orleans whose family was able to pass as white. As French Creoles, they were considered free people of color. Plessy boarded the whites-only train car to challenge segregation rules, much like Rosa Parks would do 63 years later when she refused to move to the colored section of a bus, but his attempt instead became the legal face of segregation under the emerging Jim Crow era.

He boarded the train in what is now the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans and headed for Covington, Louisiana, 40 miles north of the city, as part of a civil rights group’s challenge to a newly enacted state law that forced segregated seating.

Since Plessy was able to pass as white, the civil rights group alerted the train before he boarded and hired an inspector to make a show of recognizing Plessy was colored by taking him from the whites-only car.

But the group’s efforts to force a reckoning with the rising racism in the South did not work.

Plessy was charged with boarding a whites-only car and was convicted after a trial. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court ruled 7-1 that the state’s racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as the facilities for the races were of equal quality. Essentially, the majority found it was perfectly legal to divide the population by race.

A year later, Plessy changed his plea to guilty of violating the Separate Car Act and paid a $25 fine. He died in 1925 with the conviction still on his record.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was used to justify segregation in the U.S. for more than half a century and was among several that brought the country into the Jim Crow era.

The majority in Plessy “enshrined white supremacy” in law, Angela A. Allen-Bell, a professor at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, said at Wednesday's event.

Plessy normalized the belief of the inferiority of people of color,” she said. “It etched a seal of legality on a system of social degradation and instantly reversed the aims of Reconstruction.”

In November, the Louisiana Board of Pardons voted in support of Plessy’s pardon and sent its recommendation to Edwards.

“The stroke of my pen on this pardon,” the governor said Wednesday, “while momentous, does not erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eradicate all the wrongs wrought by the Plessy court or fix all our present challengers. We can all acknowledge we have a long way to go, but this pardon is a step in the right direction.”

Plessy’s pardon is one of several actions in recent years made to acknowledge his role in history and the long-reaching, devastating impacts of the ruling.

In 2009, decades after Plessy’s death, his descendants and those of John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw Plessy’s case in New Orleans, created a nonprofit foundation to advocate for civil rights education.           

Separate but equal policies were maintained until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision established that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

“I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me,” Keith Plessy, a distant relative of Plessy, said Wednesday. “This is a truly blessed day.”

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