Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg

separate cover imageSummary: A contextual and narrative history of the Plessey V Ferguson Supreme Court Ruling.

Part of what I appreciate about the framing of Separate is that Luxenberg takes great pains to point out segregation’s national history, not just its Southern history. It is undoubtedly true that Plessy was arrested in Louisiana, and the movement in the 1880s and 90s for southern segregation was a response to the political realities and white supremacy of the post-reconstruction era. But segregated rail cars were first established in the 1840s in Massachusetts. Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Robert Small, and many other abolitions were removed (often forcefully and with significant harm) either from the train or to segregated cars. There is a good discussion of this history in the biographies linked above, but also a good part of Until Justice Be Done, about the movement for civil rights before the Civil War, is about the role of civil rights in transportation. Before the mid-20th century, virtually everyone that traveled used some paid transportation. Individual vehicles or even private horses or carriages were incapable of long-distance travel either because of cost or effort.

Like Heart of Atlanta: Five Black Pastors and the Supreme Court Victory for Integration by Ronnie Greene, also a book on a civil rights Supreme Court case written by a journalist, most of the book is about the context and facts of the case, not the legal decision. In fact, the discussion of the actual case and ruling doesn’t happen until the final section, about 90 percent of the way through the book. This feature is both the best and worst part of the book. The extensive context is framed primarily around the biographies of Justice John Harlan (who wrote the dissent), Albion Tourgee, lead counsel for Plessy, and Henry Billings Brown, the author of the majority opinion. There were also biographical portions for Louis Martinet (who conceived of the suit as a test case) and Homer Plessy (the man who was arrested as part of the test case). And, of course, the history of segregated transportation and the New Orleans Creole community, which drove the case.

At the end of the book, I appreciate why Steve Luxenberg gave us all of the context, but the moving back and forth between the three main characters was sometimes confusing. (This is probably because I mostly listened to this on audiobook). And I very much appreciate the reality that Luxenberg points out that what killed reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and caused the result of Plessy was the actions of moderate Republicans as much as pro-segregationist southern Democrats. John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 case was a preview of Plessy and is discussed in light of that. But in both cases, the only dissenter was Harlan, who was also the only Southerner on the court at the time.

Prior to reading Separate, I was not aware of most of the characters. I knew of Plessy by name and of the legacy of John Marshall Harlan, but I could not have named Henry Johnson as the author of the majority opinion, nor had I even heard of Albion Tourgee or Louis Martinet. The view that the federal government does not have the right to uphold the rights of Black citizens against state law with the power of the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments I was familiar with because of Foner’s exploration of the Reconstruction Constitutional Amendments in The Second Founding, but I think many alive today would not recognize the change in legal opinion since that time. That being said, the discussion is increasingly on the table again.

Anti-DEI laws, like what has recently been passed in Florida and what was passed last year in Georgia in a weaker form, places the rights of black and white students in conflict. It is not usually framed this way, but in Georgia (where I live and I am more familiar), state teacher certification rules have recently changed, removing the obligation of teachers to learn about diversity issues in education. Nationally approximately 80% of teachers are white, but only 45% of students are white. Removing the requirements of teachers to learn about teaching diverse student bodies would seem to violate the equal protection of students potentially. But the framing of the anti-DEI rules is that are protecting the rights of white students.

These issues will not be easy to solve going forward. But understanding the history of how we have gotten here, is important to understanding how we will move forward.

Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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