Jan 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Louisiana governor pardons Plessy, from "separate but equal" ruling

Sign with a train with Homer Plessy Freedom printed on it on 26th February 2020 at Homer Plessy Community School, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States.

A sign outside the Homer Plessy Community School in New Orleans. Photo: Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy on Wednesday, over a century after he was arrested for boarding a "whites-only" train car in an effort to abolish a Jim Crow law that mandated segregated railroad cars.

The big picture: Plessy was charged with boarding the wrong train car at the time. His lawyers argued that the state law was unconstitutional. The case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1896 that the law — and thus racial segregation — did not violate the 14th Amendment, establishing the "separate but equal" doctrine.

  • The Plessy v. Ferguson case "ushered in a half-century of laws calling for 'separate but equal' accommodations that kept Black people in segregated schools, housing, theaters and other venues," AP notes.
  • It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the notion of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional.

Catch up quick: In early 1897, Plessy pleaded guilty to the charge and was fined. He died in 1925.

  • The Louisiana Board of Pardons voted to pardon Plessy in November.

State of play: Wednesday's pardon took place in a spot near where Plessy was arrested. Relatives of Plessy, as well as those of John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw the case against him, were in attendance.

What they're saying: "I'm holding back tears, y'all. I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me," said Keith Plessy, a relative of Plessy.

  • "On behalf of my family ... Homer Plessy will have his way today," he added.

"This is a day that should have never have had to happen," said Gov. Edwards.

  • He mentioned the dissent of John Marshall Harlan, the only Supreme Court justice who voted in favor of Plessy: "Justice Harlan's dissent demonstrates that justice and decency dictate the absolute necessity that we come together this morning for this posthumous pardon, so that the last chapter in this saga ... celebrates [Plessy's] call as right and just."
  • "It was important that the office that prosecuted Homer Plessy be the office that asked for his name to be pardoned," said New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams. "Homer Plessy was not a criminal. He was then and is now a hero."
Go deeper