In front of the old New Orleans train station where, in 1892, Homer Plessy engaged in a trailblazing act of civil disobedience that led to the landmark Plessy v Ferguson supreme court decision, Louisiana’s governor stood 130 years later and issued a posthumous pardon to the late civil rights pioneer.
Beneath a grey sky and in a ceremony laced with symbolism and repentance, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the pardon for Plessy, a Creole man of color who purchased a ticket for a whites-only train cabin and was subsequently arrested for violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.
Plessy’s case resulted in the infamous 1896 court decision, which legalized the “separate but equal” doctrine and ushered in the Jim Crow era of racist segregation.
“The stroke of my pen on this pardon, while momentous, it doesn’t erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eradicate all the wrongs wrought by the Plessy court, or fix all of our present challenges,” Edwards said. “But this pardon is a step in the right direction.”
The ceremony, on the grounds of the old station that is now a campus for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, was attended by descendants of both Plessy and John Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who initially ruled against Plessy before the case made it to the supreme court.
“This is truly a blessed day for ancestors and elders. For children and children yet to be born,” said Keith Plessy, Homer’s cousin three times removed. Holding back tears, he continued: “I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today, because the ancestors are carrying me.”
The ceremony began with a rendition of the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, performed by a cellist, Kate Dillingham, descended from the lone dissenting supreme court justice in the Plessy case, John Marshall Harlan.
In his dissent, Harlan wrote that the ruling “will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case” – a reference to the 1857 decision that said no Black person who had been enslaved or was descended from a slave could ever become a US citizen.
The Louisiana parole board voted unanimously in November to pardon Plessy, leaving the final act in the process with Governor Edwards. The pardon marked the first time Louisiana’s Avery C Alexander pardon law, passed in 2006 to allow victims of racist laws clemency, has been used in the state.
The effort was driven by New Orleans’s recently elected district attorney, Jason Williams, a progressive reformer who came to office on a wave of grassroots support.
On Wednesday, Williams addressed the ceremony, insisting that the district attorney’s office should never have prosecuted Plessy at all.
“It was important that the office that prosecuted Homer Plessy be the office that asked for his name to be pardoned,” Williams said. “My predecessor should not have prosecuted Homer Plessy.”
He continued: “I did not submit this pardon asking for Homer Plessy to be forgiven. I submitted it asking for us, the institution, to be forgiven.”