Homer Plessy's arrest


Author: Timothy Sandefur

I spent this weekend at a conference in New Orleans, and snagged some time to look around at the city. It was my first time there, and I found the French Quarter just as charming as everyone said it would be.

I also got a chance to walk over to an important site just outside the French Quarter: a railyard where, on June 7, 1892, 29-year-old Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting on a “Whites Only” car on the East Louisiana Railroad.

Plessy, who was only 1/8 black, was arrested and charged with violating the newly enacted “Separate Car Act,” which segregated the railroads. Plessy had agreed to serve as the client in a test case organized by the Comite des Citoyens, and paid for by the railroad (which wanted to get the law stricken because it was quite expensive for them to attach separate cars to their railroads).

Plessy’s lawyers argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and when the case was finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, it decided that the Act was constitutional. The Fourteenth Amendment, wrote Justice Henry Brown, “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” So long as the law provided “equal” accomodation to both races, it was constitutional to “separate” them.

(click to enlarge)

Thus was inaugurated a half-century of pathetic myth that segregation satisfied the constitutional imperative of equality; a myth that hardly disguised a reign of violence and fraud in the form of white supremacy.

Of the justices, it was only John Marshall Harlan who dissented. As he had in the Civil Rights Cases years before, Harlan, himself a former slaveowner, spoke eloquently in defense of racial equality. “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. 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. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.” According to his wife, Harlan wrote the dissent with the same inkwell with which Roger Taney had written the Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (Some years ago, I visited Harlan’s gravesite; you can see the pictures on my personal blog.)

If you want to visit the Plessy v. Ferguson site, you’ll find it at the corner of Royal and Press Streets just outside the French Quarter.