Robert Barnes reports in the Washington Post:
When Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson decided to start a new civil rights education organization that would bear their famous names, they sealed the deal in a fitting local spot: Cafe Reconcile.
They represent the opposing principals in one of the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions, Plessy v. Ferguson , which upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws mandating segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. It stood from 1896 until the court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
The descendent of the man who tested Louisiana’s law requiring separate railroad cars for whites and blacks and the great-great-granddaughter of the judge who upheld it met in 2004.
The truth is, no reconciliation was required.
“The first thing I said to her,” recalled Plessy, “was, ‘Hey, it’s no longer Plessy versus Ferguson. It’s Plessy and Ferguson.’ ”
Her first reaction was to apologize.
“I don’t know why,” she said in an interview. “It’s just that I felt the burden of it, this great injustice.”
“I said, ‘You weren’t alive during that time. I wasn’t either. It’s time for us to change that whole image.’ ”
So the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation was born, and on Tuesday it will celebrate another anniversary of Homer Adolph Plessy’s decision to buy a railroad ticket for the June 7, 1892, train trip from New Orleans to Covington, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.
Barnes’s moving article provides a glimpse of a story rooted in a sad chapter of American history. It is also a chapter that peculiarly illustrates Faulkner’s proposition that “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Consider the case that brings Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson together. Plessy v. Ferguson is of course the infamous case in which the Supreme Court held that Jim Crow laws providing separate but equal accommodations by race violated no right guaranteed by the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. This is the received version of the case that Barnes transmits in his article.
Andrew Kull devotes two chapters to the case and the separate but equal doctrine in The Color-Blind Constitution, one of the best books I’ve ever read on a legal subject. (I learned of the book through Judge Alex Kosinski’s 1993 New Republic review.) At the outset of his discussion of the case, Professor Kull makes this astounding observation: “The majority opinion in Plessy makes a comfortable target, and it is routinely vilified. But in its broad holding, as opposed to its particular application, Plessy has never been overruled, even by implication. On the contrary, it announced what has remained ever since the stated view of a majority of the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of laws that classify by race.” (Footnote omitted.)