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Many watched PBS last night, as the network aired the story of the Freedom Riders, brave men and women who risked their safety and comfort to defeat institutionalized injustice in the form of "Jim Crow" laws, segregation blessed by the US Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

A case which sprang from the fight of brave men and women who risked their safety and comfort to defeat the institutionalized injustice in the form of "Jim Crow" laws...

A brief tale of things going around and coming around.

'Til we come 'round right.

In 1890, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law requiring that black citizens ride in separate rail cars from whites, joining the growing number of states in the Reconstruction-era South in establishing "Jim Crow" laws.

In New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, a group of citizens banded together to defeat those laws. Their plan: to get a member arrested for violating the law and, when he was convicted, to push the appeal all the way to the US Supreme Court, where they were confident it would be overturned, thereby eliminating all Jim Crow laws.

The group, the “Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law,” picked local volunteer Homer Plessy for the test case. Plessy was perfect for the task. He was 7/8 white and light enough to purchase his ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad train from New Orleans to Covington without arousing suspicion in the ticket office.

As the train passed the Press Street yards in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, a detective, hired by the Citizens' Committee, confronted Plessy in the whites-only car and asked him if he were black, which Plessy confirmed. The train was stopped, Plessy removed and arrested. Subsequently, Criminal District Judge John Ferguson found Plessy guilty, dismissing Plessy's argument that the law was unconstitutional. And, just as the Citizens' Committee had hoped, the case made its way to the Supreme Court...

. . . where things went wrong. Instead of striking down the Separate Car law--and every other law allowing segregation of accommodation by race--the Court ruled that states had the right to require segregation of facilities, so long has those for blacks were equal to those of whites.

And so things remained, until 1954, when the Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. In 1961, the Freedom Riders forced the federal government, through the Interstate Commerce Commission, to enforce the Brown decision.


What to take away from this convoluted, circular tale? That sometimes the best efforts to bring justice go badly awry? That the treatment can end up making the disease worse?

Possibly, but I think the real lesson in the long journey that began on Press Street in 1892 and was finished on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard last night is that change only comes when you try. And, if you fail, and find things worse than before, try again. And again.

They say history doesn't stand still. I say it actually does.

Unless we push.


More on the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and a happy ending, can be found in this diary from February 2009.

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