Louisiana governor pardons Homer Plessy for protest against segregation


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Washington – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday granted a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy, whose 1892 refusal to leave a wagon reserved for whites led the Supreme Court to uphold state laws on the racial segregation in what is considered one of his most shameful decisions.

Edwards, a Democrat, signed the pardon in a ceremony outside the old New Orleans train station where Plessy boarded a train bound for Covington, Louisiana, before his arrest he 130 years ago. Louisiana Council of Pardons voted unanimously in November to delete Plessy’s file. Descendants of Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who initially upheld the state’s segregation law, forged a friendship and pleaded for posthumous forgiveness.

“The stroke of the pen on this forgiveness, while important, does not erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eliminate all of the wrongs done by the Plessy court or solve all of our current challenges, ”Edwards said before signing the pardon. “We can all recognize that we have a long way to go, but this forgiveness is a step in the right direction.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signs a posthumous pardon for Homer Plessy, whose protest against segregation led to the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, January 5, 2021.

CBS News

Keith Plessy, Homer Plessy’s distant relative, also spoke at the ceremony and said: “Homer Plessy will have what he wants today.

The now infamous case dates back to June 7, 1892, when Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker who was a black eighth, bought a first class ticket on the Eastern Louisiana Railroad and sat in a seat in the car allocated to white passengers. . Plessy, then 30, was arrested and charged with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890, which required rail companies to provide “equal but separate accommodation” for passengers. white and black passengers.

The Plessy Act was organized by the Citizens’ Committee, a New Orleans civil rights group, to test the constitutionality of the law. Violators of the law were liable to a $ 25 fine or jail time.

Plessy argued that Louisiana law violated the 14th Amendment, but Ferguson ruled against it. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Ferguson’s decision and Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, made up of nine white men, heard the arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson on April 13, 1896. A month later, the judges ruled 7-1 against Plessy.

The court, in an opinion delivered by Judge Henry Billings Brown, ruled that the Separate Car Act did not violate the Constitution and upheld the principle of racial segregation, allowing the application of a multitude of segregation laws in South.

Although Brown did not use the term “separate but equal” in the majority opinion, he wrote that laws permitting or requiring separation on the basis of race “do not necessarily imply inferiority of the race. ‘one or the other race in relation to the other’.

“The legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical difference, and the attempt to do so can only exacerbate the difficulties of the current situation,” Brown wrote for the court. “If the civil and political rights of the two races are equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race is socially inferior to the other, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same level. “

Only Judge John Marshall Harlan dissented, and he warned that the court’s decision “over time would prove to be just as pernicious as this court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case.”

“In the eyes of the Constitution, in the eyes of the law, there is no upper, dominant ruling class of citizens in this country. There is no caste here, ”Harlan wrote. “Our Constitution is color blind and neither recognizes nor tolerates class among citizens. In matters of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, Plessy pleaded guilty in 1897 to violating the Separate Cars Act and paid the fine of $ 25. He died on March 1, 1925, the conviction still on his record.

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Homer Plessy de Plessy c. Ferguson pardoned

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The Supreme Court ruling upholding the doctrine of separation but equality remained in place until 1954, when the High Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the landmark case of 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 educational institutions are inherently unequal.”

The five-member Louisiana Pardons Council met in November to vote to recommend Plessy’s pardon in a virtual hearing attended by great-great-grandchild Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson – Ferguson’s daughter. In remarks to the board, Keith Plessy said civil rights activists called Homer Plessy “the first Freedom Rider.”

“There is no doubt that he was guilty of this act on that date,” Orleans Parish Attorney Jason Williams said of Plessy breaking the Separate Car Act. “But there is no doubt that such an act should never have been a crime in this country.”

Before signing Plessy’s pardon, Edwards said the majority of seven Supreme Court justices in 1896 “embraced racism and white supremacy as if the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States were just simple ornaments without meaning or effect “.

“The cause of forgiveness that we come together today to celebrate is unfortunately not just about righting a historic wrong. The pernicious effects of Plessy persist, ”said Edwards. “In terms of race relations, equality and justice, we are not where we should be.”

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