Plessy v. Ferguson may seem like a historical embarrassment today, a court case best quietly forgotten. But two friends in New Orleans think it has lessons to teach.
Two years ago Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy – each a descendent of a party in the case – formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit group aimed at telling the stories of Homer Plessy and Judge Ferguson as well as advocating for better racial understanding today. On June 7, they helped mark Homer A. Plessy Day in New Orleans, commemorating the anniversary of Plessy's fateful arrest.
Though his court case was lost, it helped spark the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the later use of nonviolent civil disobedience to promote civil rights.
It also became known for the "Great Dissent" written by John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner from Kentucky who was the only Supreme Court justice to disagree with the majority in the 7-1 decision. "Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law," Justice Harlan wrote. "The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race ... cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."