Thursday, June 9, 2011

Does the U.S. Supreme Court Make Mistakes?

Does Little Orphan Annie have curly hair?
by Charlie Leck

The remarkable story of Plessy v. Ferguson is making the rounds right now thanks to a couple of amazing descendents of the central players in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Just imagine had you been a member of the court hearing the case? Which way would you have gone?

Would you have ruled that Homer Adloph Plessy, a man who was 7/8th white, but considered himself colored, had no right to a seat in the white only section of a train bound from New Orleans to a town on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain on 7 June 1892? A judge in New Orleans, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Mr. Plessy was wrong in arguing he had been deprived of equal accommodations but was “simply deprived of the liberty of doing as he pleased.”

In 1896, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7 to 1, decreed that Judge Ferguson was correct and denied Mr. Plessy relief.

Writing for the majority, Justice Billings Brown wrote: “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.”

Justice Brown emphatically went on: “If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

Oh, my! Imagine!

Writing for the minority (himself), Justice John Marshall Harlan raged: “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Mr. Plessy paid a $25 fine, with no time in jail.

The logic and reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court decision stood firm until 1954 when its decision in Brown v. Board of Education reversed the senseless contention.

Now, to return to my opening and, perhaps, mysterious sentence. I hope you have read the story because it’s a grand one! Two descendents of the central figures in case, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, who met in 2004, have formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.

As Robert Barnes says in his Washington Post story about the foundation:

“The organization seeks to highlight the historic moments in New Orleans’s struggle for racial equality and hopes to remind the public of the story behind the famous case. It was, Plessy and Ferguson said, a forerunner of the legal strategies and civil disobedience that took root in the civil rights struggles of the 20th century.”


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