Contributed by Dr. Al Cohen, Chair of the Capital Region ESD 113 Board of Directors at the February 9, 2022 board meeting.
The past few years have been challenging on a number of fronts. Our nation seems to be divided politically and socially on a number of issues. We have been confronted with issues ranging from war and immigration to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capitol insurrection, and racism. It is easy to understand how one can become disheartened with the state of affairs. Today, let’s put the negative stories aside and celebrate a historically positive event that is especially appropriate during our celebration of Black History month. The event I’m referring to is the pardon of Homer Plessy in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 provided the precedent of separate but equal. In essence, the decision upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Homer Plessy, an African American, refused to sit in a train car for Black people. The court ruled 8 to 1 against Mr. Plessy and he was considered a convicted criminal.
The ramifications of this decision were widespread and led to the restrictive Jim Crow legislation, which legalized separate public accommodations based on race. It wasn’t until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate but equal has no place” in public education and that plaintiffs in the Brown case were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
Progress in Civil Rights for African Americans has been slow and continues to be challenging. In early January, we saw a small but significant step in the right direction. Mr. Homer Plessy is the first person in Louisiana to be pardoned posthumously, and the judge plans to dedicate her courtroom to Mr. Plessy.
During the signing of the pardon, Governor Edwards said, “While this pardon has been a long time coming, we can all acknowledge this is a day that should have never had to happen.” It was significant that descendants of Mr. Plessy and Judge Ferguson were in attendance. Descendants of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harlan were also present. Justice Harlan was the lone vote against the majority decision. In his dissent, he wrote, “The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.”
Pardoning Mr. Plessy may become only a footnote in American Civil Rights history. Small as it may be, in this time of so much conflict, struggle, and turmoil, it offers us a bright moment that will hopefully shed light for a better future.