By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The governor of Louisiana posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy, the black man whose arrest for refusing to leave a white-only railroad car in 1892 led to the decision on Wednesday of the Supreme Court that has cemented “separate but equal” into US law for half a century.
Last year, the state Pardon Council recommended pardon for Plessy, who boarded the wagon as a member of a small civil rights group in hopes of overturning a law of the state on train segregation. Instead, the protest led to the 1896 ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson, who solidified white space in public housing such as transportation, hotels and schools for decades.
In a ceremony held near where Plessy was arrested, Governor John Bel Edwards said he was “beyond gratitude” for helping to restore “the legacy of the justness of his cause… not defiled by the error of his condemnation ”.
Keith Plessy, whose great-great-grandfather was Plessy’s cousin, called the event “truly a blessed day for our ancestors … and for unborn children.”
Since the Pardon Commission vote in November, “I have the impression that my feet do not touch the ground because my ancestors carry me,” he said.
Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote in Decision 7-1: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical difference.
Judge John Marshall Harlan was the only dissenting voice. who had been enslaved or descended from a slave could never become an American citizen.
The ceremony began with cellist Kate Dillingham – a descendant of dissident justice – performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while the audience sang.
The Plessy v. Ferguson allowing racial segregation in American life was the law of the land until the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education. Both cases argued that the segregation laws violated the 14th Amendment right to equal protection.
The Brown decision led to widespread desegregation of public schools and the eventual removal of Jim Crow laws that discriminated against black Americans.
Plessy was a member of the Citizens Committee, a New Orleans group that tried to overcome laws that reversed post-Civil War equality progress.
The 30-year-old shoemaker lacked the business, political and educational accomplishments of most other members, Keith Weldon Medley wrote in the book “We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson”. But his fair skin – court documents described him as someone of whom “an eighth of African blood” was “not discernible” – positioned him for the train car protest.
“His only attribute was being white enough to access the train and black enough to be stopped for it,” Medley wrote.
Eight months after the ruling in his case, Plessy pleaded guilty and was fined $ 25 when 25 cents would buy a pound of round steak and 10 pounds of potatoes.
Keith Plessy said donations the committee collected paid for the fine and other legal fees. But Plessy returned to the dark and never returned to the shoe repair shop.
He worked alternately as a laborer, warehouse worker, and clerk before becoming a collector for the Black-Owned People’s Life Insurance Company, Medley wrote. He died in 1925 with the conviction on record.
Relatives of Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw his case in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, became friends decades later and formed a nonprofit campaigning for the civic rights education.
Descendants of the citizens’ committee and descendants of the local judge were also present at the pardon ceremony.
The purpose of forgiveness “is not to erase what happened 125 years ago, but to recognize the harm that was done,” said Phoebe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of the judge.
Other recent efforts have recognized Plessy’s role in history, including a 2018 New Orleans city council vote to rename a section of the street where he attempted to board the train in his honor.
The five blocks of Homer Plessy Way cross the campus of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school where the courtyard ceremony was held. Cars from the city’s Public Belt Railroad served as the backdrop for the pardon’s signing, which took place a few blocks from where Plessy was arrested.
The governor’s office described it as the first pardon under Louisiana’s Avery Alexander Act of 2006, which allows pardons for those convicted under discriminatory laws.
Former state senator Edwin Murray said he originally drafted the law to automatically forgive anyone found guilty of breaking a law written to encode discrimination. He said he made it optional after people arrested for civil rights protests told him they viewed the arrests as a badge of honor.