Black rights fighter Homer Plessy wins a pardon after 129 years

By Vivian Sahner
December 6, 2021
Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy, descendants of Louisiana judge and Black rights fighter involved in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, where Supreme Court legalized Jim Crow segregation.
New Orleans Jazz MuseumPhoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy, descendants of Louisiana judge and Black rights fighter involved in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, where Supreme Court legalized Jim Crow segregation.

On Nov. 12, the Louisiana Board of Pardons recommended a pardon for Homer Plessy, 129 years after he was arrested for challenging that state’s new Separate Car Act by boarding a “whites only” rail car on June 7, 1892. Four years later the Supreme Court denied his appeal, ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” did not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection under the law.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards says he will sign Plessy’s pardon.

The ruling against Plessy provided legal cover for Jim Crow laws. They were enforced with brutal lynch-mob violence throughout the South until they were torn down by the mass Black-led working-class movement for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s.

Plessy was a dedicated combatant in the fight against Jim Crow. He knew his train ride would be short. He was a Creole man of Haitian-French descent, a shoemaker and a member of Comite des Citoyens. The group organized resistance against steps by the segregationist government in Louisiana — backed by extra-legal Klan-style violence — to crush gains won in the years after the Civil War that ended slavery under governments of Radical Reconstruction.

Plessy’s action was organized by the group, as was the train conductor’s challenge of Plessy being in a “white” car, setting the stage for the court fight.

Plessy was born in New Orleans on March 17, 1863. Because of Radical Reconstruction he could ride integrated streetcars, attend integrated schools and look forward to voting and marrying whom he wanted. After the war Blacks, backed by the power of the Union Army, provided leadership in the South both to freed slaves and to exploited farmers and workers who were Caucasian. They waged struggles for land, defended the right to vote arms-in-hand and defeated attempts to impose slavery-like contract gangs in the fields.

Mississippi and South Carolina’s majority Black legislatures passed laws advancing the interests of all working people. They barred racial discrimination, established the first free public schools, public hospitals and medical care for the poor and expanded the grounds on which a woman could obtain a divorce.

Overturn of Radical Reconstruction

By 1877 Radical Reconstruction had gone down to bloody defeat. Not only Afro-Americans but the entire working class suffered its worst setback.

This counterrevolution was driven by the dominant sectors of industrial and rising banking capital, which feared the rise of a united working class, allied with free working farmers. They brokered a deal after the deadlocked 1876 presidential election to withdraw Union troops from the South, accelerating a reign of terror by vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other racist gangs.

In 1879 mass protests and lawsuits failed to turn back a new Louisiana Constitution. The segregationist-minded state legislature adopted it, eliminating equal rights to public places and ending public school integration.

In the face of this setback Creole activists established the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club to make sure “our rights as citizens of this State and of the United States [are] protected and respected.” The next year Plessy became vice president of the organization.

The Separate Car Act passed in 1890 required rail companies to provide different cars for white and Black passengers. Protests against the law were held in Baton Rouge.

A group of 18 men, including Plessy, formed the Comite des Citoyens to fight for its overturn. They raised $3,000 from Black organizations, labor unions, religious groups and others to wage the fight. They recruited Albion W. Tourgee, a Union Army veteran from New York, who was Caucasian, as their lawyer.

Under their plan, Daniel Desdunes, who was Black, boarded a “whites only” car on an interstate train in February 1892. After his arrest the case went before Louisiana Judge John Ferguson, who was sympathetic to their fight. He dismissed the charges, ruling that interstate travel was protected by federal law under the 14th Amendment.

After this victory, Plessy boarded an intrastate train. He was arrested, charged and tried before Judge Ferguson. Tourgee, Plessy’s lawyer, told the court “separate but equal” had nothing to do with equality. “Its only effect,” he said, “is to perpetuate the stigma of color.”

Ferguson said that because intrastate travel was a matter of state law he had to uphold the Separate Car Act. But he allowed Plessy and his supporters to appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But by the 1890s the organized efforts of Southern bosses and plantation farmers to impose Jim Crow were in full swing. In 1892 alone, 226 mostly Black men were lynched, the highest number in the recorded history of lynchings. Catholics and Jews were also targeted.

“We, as freemen, still believe that we were right,” the Comite des Citoyens said after the Supreme Court ruling. “In defending the cause of liberty, we met with defeat, but not with ignominy.”

The court’s 7-1 decision against Plessy was a decisive step in giving legal cover to the bloody imposition of Jim Crow. Ferguson found Plessy guilty and fined him $25.

It would be 60 years before another generation of Blacks, building on the fight led by Plessy, would lead the disciplined and determined mass working-class struggle that uprooted Jim Crow, transforming social relations and winning the support of millions of workers here and around the world in the process.

Homer Plessy is part of the long line of working-class combatants who have made history on behalf of all those exploited and oppressed by capital.