From the Publisher
In June 1892, a thirty-year-old shoemaker named Homer Plessy bought a first-class railway ticket from his native New Orleans to Covington, north of Lake Pontchartrain. The two-hour trip had hardly begun when Plessy was arrested and removed from the train. Though Homer Plessy was born a free man of color and enjoyed relative equality while growing up in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, by 1890 he could no longer ride in the same carriage with white passengers. Plessy's act of civil disobedience was designed to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, one of the many Jim Crow laws that threatened the freedoms gained by blacks after the Civil War. This largely forgotten case established segregation as the law of the land and prefigures both Rosa Parks' defiance of bus segregation in Alabama and the legal arguments of Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, Louisiana's famous Supreme Court case, established the separate-but-equal doctrine that prevailed in America until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Homer Plessy's arrest in a New Orleans railway car was not mere happenstance, but the result of a carefully choreographed campaign of civil disobedience planned by the Comite des Citoyens. This group of Republican free men of color had watched their rights disappear under the increasingly strict Jim Crow laws of the post-Reconstruction period. To contest these new restrictions, they arranged for Plessy, who could "pass" for white, to illegally seat himself in a whites-only carriage.
Keith Weldon Medley brings to life the players in this landmark trial, from the crusading black columnist Rodolphe Desdunes and the other members of the Comite des Citoyens to Albion W. Tourgee, the outspoken writer who represented Plessy, to John Ferguson, a reformist carpetbagger who nonetheless found Plessy guilty. The U.S. Supreme Court sustained the finding, with only John Marshall Harlan, a Southern associate justice, voting against the decision.