Via Don Milard of Tomfoolery with O’TooleFan (@OTOOLEFAN on Twitter), in the midst of depressing unemployment figures, the looming scandal involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the story of a decent politician gone astray, here’s a much-needed lift:
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.
It’s a beautiful story, a uniquely American story, that says so much about who we can be, and who many of us are: A people who do not merely tolerate diversity but fully embrace it.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that it’s a story that was more than a century in the making. The case that bears their family names, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), was decided 108 years before Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson met and developed the idea for the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation – proving, as a Twitter friend noted, Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But it doesn’t just happen, that bending towards justice, as the story of Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson demonstrates. Mr. Plessy and Ms. Ferguson were not products of the “separate but equal” doctrine – the horribly misguided legal principle that their namesake Supreme Court decision announced – but instead grew up after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (in fact, both of them were born the year the Brown case was decided). In Brown, the Court rejected the naïve platitudes it had adopted roughly sixty years earlier in Plessy, taking a hard look at the realities of racial segregation in public education as it then existed:
Our decision … cannot turn on merely a comparison of … tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.
In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.
347 U.S. at 492-93.
It was that pragmatic aspect of Brown – the refusal to merely accept the government’s assurances that state funded education, though segregated, was nonetheless “equal” on paper – that was both the most controversial aspect of the decision and its true genius. Because the Court required action to accomplish equality, not the mere paying of lip service to the concept of equality. In the Court’s follow up decision, typically referred to as Brown II, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), it fashioned a remedy to cure segregation in the school districts that were the subject of the consolidated cases decided in the first Brown decision, which remedy became the model for desegregation nationwide:
[T]he cases are remanded to the District Courts to take such proceedings and enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.
349 U.S. at 301 (emphasis supplied).
And as we all know, that was only the beginning of the long, arduous process of change. But it was a journey we had to take, not just to talk about constitutional niceties but to bring the vision of the Fourteenth Amendment into reality. It’s a process that’s still going on today, of course, as evidenced by the fact that The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation was established roughly fifty years after the first Brown decision.
It’s never been easy, and the work may never be done, not completely anyway; but the story of Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson reminds me that it’s work that’s well worth doing.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.