MLK 50: Descendants of Plessy, Ferguson unite over a century after landmark case

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NEW ORLEANS -- More than 120 years ago, a man boarded a train on Press Street in New Orleans and was arrested -- on purpose -- aboard a fateful train ride to Covington.

His name was Homer Plessy, and his case -- Plessy v. Ferguson -- forever changed history.

This year marks 49 years since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated outside his hotel room at the Lorraine Hotel. As part of WGNO-News with a Twist's yearlong commemoration of the life of Dr. King, we are reflecting on the past, evaluating the present – and seeking solutions for the future with stories that highlight local Civil Rights history and more.

This week, we spoke with descendants of both Homer Plessy and Judge John Ferguson, about what happened the morning Homer Plessy was supposed to get to Covington -- and what descendants of both men are doing about Civil Rights more than 120 years later.

In 1890, Louisiana enacted a law that required black people to sit on separate rail cars. It was an act that the railroad companies disagreed with, mostly because it meant they had to purchase more railroad cars.

The Citizens Committee of 1891 formed in opposition to the law and tried to get the law reversed by getting shoe maker Homer Plessy -- a mixed man who looked white -- to purchase a first-class train ticket on a railroad car that was for whites only.

Plessy boarded the train and was purposely arrested by the train's arresting officer, who made sure that Plessy made it safely to central lockup without being hung.

It was a well-planned event that was supposed to catch the eyes of the local court under Judge John Howard Ferguson. Plessy's lawyer argued that the state law violated Plessy's rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments, but Ferguson ruled against Plessy.

The case then went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was conveniently headed at the time by Chief Justice Francis Nicholls, who also served as governor.

"They automatically ruled against the appeal and upheld the separate car law because Governor Nichols was one of the authors of the law itself," said Phoebe Ferguson, great-great granddaughter of Judge John Ferguson.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately established the "separate but equal" doctrine that was law of the land until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.

"The irony of that term, separate but equal, is impossible," said Keith Plessy, a descendant of Homer Plessy.  "You cannot have separate anything in America and be equal at the same time."

Today, more than 120 years after the landmark case, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson are working together on the same side of Civil Rights.

They are founders of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, which works to teach the story of Plessy v. Ferguson and why it's still relevant to the Civil Rights discussion today.


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