Recognizing a Civil Rights Hero: Homer Plessy

It’s said that time heals all wounds, and while that may be true, sometimes time can help produce reconciliation. Consider the 1896 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which, unfortunately, instituted the “separate but equal” doctrine in U.S. constitutional law and allowed for decades of racist Jim Crow laws.

The case centered on New Orleans native Homer Plessy, who in 1892 purchased a train ticket, boarded at Press and Royal streets and then sat in the “whites only” section. Plessy, who had been recruited by the Citizens Committee (a precursor to the NAACP) to challenge Louisiana’s Separate Car law, refused to vacate his seat when ordered to and was arrested. In the lead up to the Supreme Court ruling, local authorities charged Plessy with violating the law and Orleans Criminal Court Judge John Ferguson ruled against him. Eventually, the Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down separate but equal laws.The victorious NAACP legal team, lead by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, used Plessy’s 14th Amendment arguments as part of its legal strategy.

Like Rosa Parks, Plessy was a civil rights hero, who died in 1925, albeit one who never saw his actions produce the desired outcome.

Fast forward 120 years later to a momentous occasion in the New Orleans City Council. LaToya presented a city proclamation to Keith Plessy, a fourth generation descendant of Homer Plessy, and Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of Judge John Ferguson. The proclamation read in part,

Be it proclaimed by the Council of the City of New Orleans that New Orleans native and and civil rights activist Homer Plessy be posthumously recognized for his fight against segregation…may his courage, commitment and sacrifice to opening the gates for the Civil Rights movement throughout the South be immortalized, remembered, and honored by the grateful citizens of the City of New Orleans.

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson have been friends for many years, and the two founded the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation, which is dedicated to informing the public about the Plessy v. Ferguson case and why it remains relevant. They are also trying to secure a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Homer Plessy. U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, wrote a letter of support, which was signed 38 members of Congress. As Richmond succinctly wrote, “Our country is a better place because of Homer Adolph Plessy.”

Indeed it is.