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The Posthumous Pardon of Homer Plessy

On January 5, 2022, the governor of Louisiana posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy, the defendant in the famous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy is known for affirming the legal theory of “separate but equal” that was used to justify Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was later overturned in part by Brown v. Board of Education.

Plessy involved a Louisiana law called the Separate Car Act, which required separate railway cars for Black and white riders. If a person violated the Separate Car Act, they were subject to criminal penalties. According to the case, Homer Plessy was 7/8 white and 1/8 Black (technically considered Black under Louisiana law) but he attempted to sit in a whites-only car, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.

Image of a statute from the book "Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana," with statutory text of the Separate Car Act

Act No. 111, The Separate Car Act, from Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana. Photo taken by Anna Price.

In his defense, Plessy argued that separate facilities for different races violated his 14th Amendment rights. The Supreme Court eventually granted review of this case and rejected Plessy’s assertions.

The majority’s opinion conceded that the 14th Amendment’s purpose was to create equality among races, but the Court held that the intended equality was political, rather than social, and decided that having separate railway cars, which were similarly situated, did not imply that one race was inferior to another. In one passage, the majority opinion noted, “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The lone dissenter, Justice John Harlan, reasoned that the Constitution is colorblind and does not tolerate the idea of classes of citizens.

Louisiana’s pardoning of Plessy is the first such act under a state law that expedites the pardon process for criminal convictions stemming from laws that were in place “to maintain or enforce racial separation or discrimination of individuals.”

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