Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It takes a movement ...

Today we celebrate the 153rd birthday of Homer Adolph Plessy. Who was Plessy? His carefully orchestrated protest against segregation was the earliest civil rights test case brought to court that I know of (I could be wrong).

Born in Union-occupied New Orleans in 1862, the young French-speaking Creole grew up in the Louisiana city under Reconstruction (1865-1877). In the racial categories of the day, he qualified as an octoroon, 7/8s white. Thus, according to the law, Plessy was black. He could pass if he wished but he didn't. But Plessy grew up watching the equal rights of people of color eroded by the terrorism of the White League and then by laws mandating segregation by race.

An interracial group of New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to oppose legal segregation. They recruited Plessy to test the separation of races on the railroad.

To pose a clear test, the Citizens' Committee gave notice of Plessy's intent to the railroad, which opposed the law because it required adding more cars to its trains.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on a train from New Orleans and sat in the car for white riders only. The Committee had hired a private detective with arrest powers to take Plessy off the train at Press and Royal streets, to ensure that he was charged with violating the state's separate-car law and not some other misdemeanor.

Four years later, the case against the segregation law had worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy's lawyers argued that under the 13th and 14th amendments, he had been deprived of a right (a seat he had paid for) without due process of law. The Supreme Court of the day disagreed, allowing Louisiana's state ban on integrated seating to overturn federal promises and such state laws to prevail until the 1950s.

Plessy legitimized the state laws establishing racial segregation in the South and provided an impetus for further segregation laws. Legislative achievements won during the Reconstruction Era were erased through means of the "separate but equal" doctrine. The doctrine had been strengthened also by an 1875 Supreme Court decision that limited the federal government's ability to intervene in state affairs, guaranteeing only Congress the power "to restrain states from acts of racial discrimination and segregation". The ruling basically granted states legislative immunity when dealing with questions of race, guaranteeing the states' right to implement racially separate institutions, requiring them only to be "equal".

Visiting the Plessy memorial last summer, I was thrilled to learn that this famous test case, even though it was lost, was a product of collective organizing by engaged citizens.

The media usually treats people who take action for justice as if they are only legitimate if their action was a spur of the moment thing, an impulse, not part of any concerted plan. This is seldom the case when people begin to rise up effectively against systems that keep them down.

The classic case is that of Rosa Parks whose determined refusal to go to the back of the bus in 1955 and subsequent arrest kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It takes nothing away from Parks' legitimacy that others had refused to accept the segregation rules before her, that she was a member of the NAACP which was developing multiple civil rights challenges, and that she had studied non-violent action at the Highlander Folk School. She didn't spring out of nowhere -- she emerged from an engaged community.

That's how effective movements for justice work.

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