The 1890 Separate Car Law of Louisiana mandated separate accommodations for Black and White railroad passengers. It was a product of segregation laws that were being enacted across the South during the post-Reconstruction era. Homer Adolph Plessy and other members of a New Orleans multi-racial group called the Citizens’ Committee challenged those laws and launched the final post-Reconstruction Civil Rights Movement of the 19th Century, built around a strategy of civil disobedience and peaceful protest. Their most important anti-segregationist action occurred on June 7, 1892, when Plessy, a man of mixed race, purchased a first class ticket at the East Louisiana Railroad Depot in New Orleans and sat in the car for white riders only. He was arrested for refusing to give up his seat and became the plaintiff in a case that eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Justices decided against him in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. By order of the highest court in our nation, the Plessy Decision was rendered and “Separate but Equal” became the law of the land, justifying legal segregation for the next 58 years. Notwithstanding this decision, the Citizens’ Committee declared in a statement, “We as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred.” Fortunately, that sentiment eventually led a new Court to undo the 1896 decision. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Decision initiated a new era and the gradual dismantling of legalized American apartheid. In 1955, reprising Plessy’s civil disobedience, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Six years later, the Freedom Riders, again taking Plessy and the Citizens’ Committee as a model, began their effective campaign to pressure the federal government to enforce its ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. These efforts on the part of outstanding Americans led eventually to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
These events mark the high points of the American Civil Rights struggle of the last 120 years. While Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders are rightly acknowledged as heroes of that struggle, largely because their actions resulted in positive gains for the Movement, Homer Plessy’s important role in that history has often been overlooked. Indeed, it is unfortunate, even shameful, that the loss of the Supreme Court case in 1896 resulted in Plessy’s name being wrongly associated with the long oppressive blight of Jim Crow laws, obscuring his contribution to the legal, social, and moral movement to abolish those laws. We are approaching the 120th anniversary of the Plessy v. Ferguson case on May 18, 2016. To date, he has never been officially acknowledged for his sacrifice on the altar of freedom. Those Americans who know the history of our struggle, however, look upon Plessy as a figure of immense historical importance. It is time now for us to stand up and insist on the acknowledgement of his rightful place in the history of American Civil Rights.
Be a part of removing the burdensome legacy of Jim Crow history from his name. The Presidential Medal of Freedom will give him the recognition that he and his fellow civil rights activists so richly deserve. Please support his nomination by signing this petition. Your help in this effort is deeply appreciated.
The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation