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Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court's Decision that Legalized Racism
     

Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court's Decision that Legalized Racism

by Harvey Fireside
 

When Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker, refused to move to the "Jim Crow" railroad car set aside for Negroes by state law, he initiated a lawsuit challenging the entire system of racial segregation. In Separate but Unequal, Harvey Fireside traces the roots of the Supreme Court decision that enshrined racial separation in America for the next sixty years. He

Overview

When Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker, refused to move to the "Jim Crow" railroad car set aside for Negroes by state law, he initiated a lawsuit challenging the entire system of racial segregation. In Separate but Unequal, Harvey Fireside traces the roots of the Supreme Court decision that enshrined racial separation in America for the next sixty years. He uncovers little-known areas of U.S. history, such as the remarkable Black Creole community that flourished as a distinct culture after Louisiana was purchased from France and Spain. Well-educated and prosperous, they threw in their lot with recently freed Negroes in the 1890s, because new racist laws relegated them both to second-class citizenship. Among the "carpetbaggers," demonized in history as corrupt and greedy Northerners, Fireside reveals true idealists like Albion Tourgee, who argued Plessy's case without fee to the Supreme Court. Seven justices there approved segregation laws, but Justice John Marshall Harlan — a former slave owner — dissented. He memorably punctured the hypocrisy behind a law claiming to provide "separate but equal" accommodations, which were actually inferior and racist. Unfortunately, as this book argues, these standards for African Americans still exist. Photographs are featured in this compelling historical drama.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Fireside, author of six previous books on civil rights issues, has written a riveting account of Plessy. Most of the facts have been noted by others, but they are no less fascinating in the re-telling.—Paul Butler
Publishers Weekly
One of the Supreme Court's ugliest decisions is Brown's backstory: the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which enshrined the term "separate but equal." Dana professor of politics emeritus at Ithaca College, Fireside offers texture to the story behind New Orleans shoemaker Plessy's brave effort to seek civil rights while tracking the course of the case through the Supreme Court and history. It was overturned in Brown, but Fireside considers progress since then to be halting. Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial wrote the introduction. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Fireside (politics, Ithaca Coll.) retraces the road to and from the notorious 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which symbolically and practically legalized racial segregation. He situates the case in a broad story aimed to correct what he exposes as multiple distortions of U.S. history and a persistent betrayal of African Americans' rights. He attributes much to a developing economic system that in the South revived caste as if the Civil War had never happened and in the North cheered industrial robber barons to profit at whatever human cost. He offers segregation's scattering and submerging of New Orleans's once flourishing free people of color to illustrate the cultural and human loss the Plessy decision imposed. More for the general reader than the specialist-for whom the works of Charles A. Lofgren and Otto H. Olsen remain the standards-this provocative meditation on racial injustice in U.S. history offers an outside-in look on the Creole community and thus serves as an inviting companion to Keith Weldon Medley's inside-out look in We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. For collections on U.S., African American, and Southern history and race relations.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sturdy examination of the famed Supreme Court case that made America safe for apartheid for more than half a century. In 1892, writes Fireside (Emeritus/Ithaca College; Brown v. Board of Education, 1994), an octoroon-that is, one-eighth black-Louisianan named Homer Plessy refused to relinquish his seat in a whites-only railroad car. It was a premeditated protest; "Plessy repeated what he had prepared to say: that he had properly bought a first-class ticket and was therefore entitled to stay where he was." The passengers were a tad confused, for Plessy appeared white; yet by Louisiana law, anyone with even a drop of "colored blood" was nonwhite, and so Plessy was charged with crimes "against the peace and dignity of the State." Freed on bond, Plessy mounted a spirited defense against the charges and challenged Louisiana's Jim Crow laws. Eventually, the matter went before the US Supreme Court, which in 1896 ruled against Plessy in Plessy v. Ferguson, holding "that [the Louisiana law] does not conflict with the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument." Fireside considers the Court's ruling in the context of contemporary judicial theory-"until the New Deal revolution, three decades into the next century," the Court allowed the individual states considerable leeway in matters of racial segregation by virtue of the Tenth Amendment-and in the context of the larger society, which was stunningly racist. So much so, Fireside observes, that the founder of the Ku Klux Klan resigned from the presidency, "evidently aghast at the widespread murders and lynchings being committed by vigilante thugs in the KKK's name,"which apparently didn't bother the locals much, even as the Supreme Court argued that the law was "powerless to eradicate social instincts." Solid work on all fronts, particularly for readers without much background in the life and times of Jim Crow. Agent: Elizabeth Trupin-Pulii/Jet Literary Agency

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786712939
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
01/15/2004
Pages:
396
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.44(d)

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