Education and Reconciliation are important themes for February’s “Black History Month”. Black history, of course, is tightly intertwined with white history. We may look to various Supreme Court decisions as a profitable learning exercise. But that exercise is also charged with hope, even hope for the unborn.
The history of US Supreme Court decisions looks like a roller coaster, moving from lows to highs or even from highs to lows as wisdom and short-sightedness take turns in replacing each other. What is only too clear is that there is no steady progress from injustices to justice. Even a cursory knowledge of US Supreme Court decisions is enough to prove the point. Plessy vs. Ferguson serves as a good example to illustrate how the US Supreme court can be, on some occasions, lacking both in justice as well as in vision.
In 1890, the State of Louisiana adopted a law providing for “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” on its railroads. Homer Plessy tested the legitimacy of the law by sitting in the “white” section of a train and refusing to leave when told to do so. Plessy was fined $25 and his case was heard by Judge John H. Ferguson of the Criminal Court of New Orleans who saw fit to uphold the law. The Louisiana law was ultimately challenged in the US Supreme Court in 1896 on the grounds that it violated the 13th and 14th amendments of the Constitution. By a 7-1 decision, however, the Court upheld the Louisiana law. Thus, it affirmed and maintained the notion that blacks were “separate but equal”.
Plessy was highly influential in establishing racial segregation laws in the South and provided the impetus for further segregation laws in the North. The “separate but equal” doctrine prevailed, even though “equal” did not really mean equal. For example, States consistently underfunded black schools and provided them with substandard buildings, textbooks and supplies. Inequality prevailed in restaurants, washrooms, hotels, and in other public facilities. Segregation and equality were on a collision course with each other.
The single dissenter, Judge John Marshall Harlan, made an impassioned and thoroughly reasonable argument that blacks should be accorded their full civil rights. “The white race deems itself to be dominant,” he wrote, but the Constitution recognizes “no superior, dominant ruling class of citizens.” He went on to state that “Our Constitution is color-blind . . . In respect of civil rights all citizens are equal before the law.” In stressing the equality of the races, independent of social status, he made the following remark that expressed the equality that the Constitution affords to everyone concisely and eloquently: “The humblest is the peer of the most powerful.”
His dissent is worth reading in its entirety. One passage, in particular, stands out: “The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.”
Judge Harlan, is known as the Great Dissenter. But he was also a prophet. Concerning the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, he had this to say: “In my opinion the judgment this day rendered will, in time prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.” Fifty-eight years later, in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Ten years after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited all legal segregation.
History teaches us hope. Forty years has passed since seven judges removed legal protection from the unborn in Roe v. Wade. In dissent, Justice Byron White called the decision nothing more than “an exercise in raw judicial power”. It took 68 years before racial segregation affirmed by Plessy vs. Ferguson was effectively overturned. Will it take as long as that for the unborn to reclaim their rights?
In 2009, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of both sides of the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision announced the establishment of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education and Reconciliation. The aim of the Foundation is to teach the history of civil rights in order to create an understanding of the 1896 case and its effects on the American people. On February 12, 2009, an historical marker was unveiled near the location where Homer Plessy had boarded his train. As Keith Plessy stated in a radio interview, “It is no longer Plessy v Ferguson. It is Plessy and Ferguson”.
Education and Reconciliation are lofty goals. Would that the day will come in which education succeeds in teaching the humanity of the unborn and that they will be reconciled to their mothers. It is the broad perspective that brings hope for the unborn. “The march of Providence is so slow,” wrote Robert E. Lee, “and our own desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
General Lee, himself, was deeply involved in both Education and Reconciliation. He served as a most innovative president of Washington University from 1865 until his death five years later, prompting the school to change its name to Washington and Lee University. The name change symbolizes a reconciliation between the North and the South. When the school was known as Liberty Hall, John Chavis, a free black, enrolled in the year 1795. He is believed to be the first black student to enroll in higher education in the United States. Chavis went on to found a school in North Carolina for white and poor black students. History teaches us both hope and reasons for measured optimism.