He boarded a whites-only train with the hope of undoing racist laws. Instead, his arrest led to a Supreme Court decision that upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine used to justify segregation.
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Descendants of Homer Plessy like to say that he was a civil rights activist before most people in Louisiana were familiar with such a term. In 1892, Plessy, a racially mixed shoemaker, boarded a whites-only train car in New Orleans, well aware that he was breaking the law and would most likely be arrested.
He was indeed charged with violating the state’s Separate Car Act, beginning a legal battle that ascended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Wednesday — nearly a century after Plessy’s death — Gov. John Bel Edwards pardoned him for the offense, scrubbing his record of a crime that came with a $25 fine.
As he signed the pardon, Mr. Edwards said he also had a much more ambitious aim: confronting a painful and shameful history that Plessy’s case came to represent. The Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, resulted in a decision that paved the way for the “separate but equal” doctrine and gave legal backing to the Jim Crow laws that segregated and disenfranchised African Americans in the South for decades.
“It left a stain on the fabric of our country and on this state and on this city,” Mr. Edwards said before he signed the pardon, speaking at the station in New Orleans where Plessy boarded the train where he was arrested. “And, quite frankly, those consequences are still felt today.”
“Homer Plessy,” he added, “more than did his part to prevent this stain.”
The pardon by Mr. Edwards was the first issued under the Avery C. Alexander Act, a measure passed by Louisiana lawmakers meant to clear the records of those convicted of violating laws that enforced segregation or discrimination. It is named for a civil rights leader and longtime member of the Louisiana House of Representatives who died in 1999.
The Separate Car Act, enacted in 1890, was among a flurry of bills passed across the South to construct a new racist order after Reconstruction and the end of slavery, and is precisely the kind of law the Avery C. Alexander Act was intended to address.
“I did not submit this pardon asking for Homer Plessy to be forgiven; I submitted asking for us to be forgiven, the institution,” Jason Williams, the Orleans Parish district attorney, said on Wednesday. “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.”
Plessy was part of a group of local activists who mobilized in response to the Separate Car law. He boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans with the aim of getting arrested. The group had picked Plessy to ride the train because he could pass for a white man.
A conductor asked Plessy if he was “colored,” and he said that he was. When the conductor instructed him to move to a different car, Plessy resisted. After his arrest, the activist group posted his $500 bond.
His first court appearance came several months later before Judge John Howard Ferguson, who decided not to bring the case to trial, which allowed Plessy’s lawyers to bring an appeal to higher courts. The case continued for several years before it reached the Supreme Court in 1896.
The court ruled 7 to 1 against Plessy — a decision that came to haunt the court as it became widely regarded as one of the lowest points in the institution’s history. The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote: “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 his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”
But the majority opinion “enshrined white supremacy” in law, Angela A. Allen-Bell, a professor at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, said at an event celebrating the pardon on Wednesday.
“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.”
The Louisiana Board of Pardons voted in support of a pardon in November, sending its recommendation to Governor Edwards.
“The stroke of my pen on this pardon,” Mr. Edwards said, “while momentous, it does not erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eradicate all the wrongs wrought by the Plessy court or fix all of our present challenges. We can all acknowledge we have a long ways to go, but this pardon is a step in the right direction.”
The pardon grew out of a larger effort by descendants of Plessy and Judge Ferguson to educate others on the continued relevance of Plessy’s actions and the long, devastating reach of the ruling. The notion of separate but equal was maintained until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court established that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
After the ruling against him, Plessy returned to Judge Ferguson’s court, changed his plea to guilty and paid his fine. He went on to work as a collector for an insurance company and died in 1925.
“I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me,” said Keith M. Plessy, a distant relative of Plessy’s who, with Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the judge, started the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. “This is truly a blessed day.”