Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

As I’ve continued to learn these last few months- time and time again- the injustices throughout our history to people of color have not been merely individual, one-on-one discrepancies. It would certainly make the problem of inequality easier to conquer if they were simply isolated instances between depraved individuals. But what I’m finding (and I hope beginning to communicate) is that the injustices and inequality over the years have been systematic and structural. For years, the US government has twisted and manipulated the Constitution to say what it wanted it to say, and in so doing continually departed from the original intent. There’s few examples of this better than the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson. Though this decision was made in 1896, it would go on to profoundly affect the African-American experience until its eventual overturning in 1954. At the time of this writing, that was just 63 years ago.

The case is named after a man named Homer Plessy. From just looking at his light skin complexion you wouldn’t be able to readily tell that he was black. However, on June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the “White” car of the East Lousiana Railroad and identified himself as black. This wasn’t an accident of ignorance. His intent was to deliberately make an issue out of the Jim Crow laws of the day- legislation designed to separate the races- knowing full well it would get him arrested and hoping it would end up in the Supreme Court where it could produce change.

Like so many African-Americans who have risen out of the history books, I so admire Plessy’s courage and willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the good of his neighbor. There’s something very Jesus-like about that. He was not violent in his protest of the wrongs around him, but yet firmly resolved to challenge the ideologies of inequality protected by the law.

He was arrested, and eventually the case did make its way to the highest court of the land. His lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendment.

In 1896, the ruling came down.

Listen to these DEVASTATING words by Justice Henry Brown, and try to follow the (twisted) logic in his statement. It is mind-boggling to me the LENGTHS they had to go to in order to safely continue the injustice within the confines of the Constitution:

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races. … The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”

Of the seven Justices, there was just one that spoke words of dissent to the decision- John Marshall Harlan. He could see the carnage awaiting if this went through and tried to speak reason… but to no avail. Look at his words in this excerpt from his statement:

“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. … The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”

In hindsight today, we can see the very prophetic nature of his words.

One Justice spoke up. The other six went along with the prevailing thought of the day.

Today I wonder how the landscape of our history would have changed if just three other Justices on the bench engaged a little bit deeper with the checks in their soul in the moment… if just three others had the courage to side with Harlan?

This is yet again another example where the silence of a few contributed to the harm of many.

When we today see injustice or inequality, do we speak up? Are we so afraid of our social status and standing that we remain in the shadows… when our neighbor is dependant on our voice to change the cultural tide?

#OurHistory

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