Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why Was Is Necessary?

During Reconstruction, blacks in New Orleans had full civil rights, but beginning in the 1880s, a spate of statutes reasserting white supremacy began being enacted in legislatures across the South, prohibiting interracial marriage, interracial mingling, and other basic rights. In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring train companies to provide separate railway carriages for whites and blacks.

For business considerations, if not altruism, the railroads opposed this law: it meant buying more train cars. Freed blacks in Louisiana resented it for a more personal reason. They saw it as a way of consigning blacks to a station in society they believed the Civil War had been fought to contravene. In New Orleans, a civil rights group called Comité des Citoyens (Citizens Committee) prepared a legal challenge.

Homer Plessy, a Treme shoemaker, was chosen both because he was gutsy and because he was mostly white—he could "pass" in the parlance of the day—meaning that his very appearance exposed the underlying irrationality of racism.

The case didn't quite go the way the civil rights lawyers hoped. The trial judge was an Orleans Parish criminal courts magistrate named John Howard Ferguson. A Massachusetts native, Ferguson was thought to be sympathetic to blacks because he'd been an abolitionist before the Civil War, and he'd thrown out a previous test case involving interstate travel.

What I notice about these kinds of cases now is that they were necessary.  That is to say, social proscription was no longer enough to suppress minorities, so the dominant class used the government's coercive monopoly on power to do what could no longer be done by informal means of oppression.

From an email by:
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Editor
Twitter: @CarlCannon <

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