Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of the first violent action against the Freedom Rides, a series of protests run by CORE (The Congress on Racial Equality) and later SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) that aimed to compel the federal government to enforce equal access to interstate bus lines and travel in the south. I have no photos of Freedom Rider graves; many of the most notable riders (Diane Nash, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg) are still with us while others, such as CORE director James Farmer, have unknown or inaccessible burial locations.
So, instead, I went back a bit to Homer Plessy. Plessy, as those of you who passed American History classes in high school may recall, gave his name to one of the most infamous Supreme Court cases in US history: Plessy v. Ferguson, which in 1896 gave final federal court approval to the emerging Jim Crow system of segregation in the post-Reconstruction south.
Homer Plessy was an early anti-segregation activist. He was descended from German immigrants and New Orleans Creoles, and was himself so light-skinned that despite Louisiana racial classification laws he could easily have passed for white, a fact that played an important role in his eventual claim to fame. He was active in local New Orleans civil rights organizations when the Separate Car Act – one of many similar statutes enacted in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s – was passed; it stated that anyone classified as ‘black’ – generally meaning anyone with any provable African ancestry – had to sit in specific ‘colored’ cars. Plessy was chosen, in large part due to his fair complexion and European features, to challenge the law by buying a ticket, boarding a train, and sitting in a ‘whites-only’ car despite his status as an “octoroon”, or someone with 1/8 African heritage.
As neither train conductors nor passengers would have identified Plessy as black, his own organization had to hire a detective to arrest him on the train; this was the only way to get the case into the court system, where activists hoped it could be overturned as unconstitutional. The case rose through Louisiana courts and was accepted by the United States Supreme court; in its decision in 1896, the Court ruled the Separate Car Act constitutional by an 8-1 vote, providing legal cover for states to pass a wide array of Jim Crow segregation laws without real fear of federal intervention.
Transportation became a major battleground in the fight against segregation; in its earliest days activists like Plessy, Ida Wells, and others challenged segregated transit only to have court cases further embed them into American law. Challenges were regular through the early twentieth century, finally finding traction in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and then again with the Freedom Rides of 1961.
Plessy’s grave is located in New Orleans’ famed St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, which my wife and I visited in February; the cemetery itself is fascinating and well worth a visit, though it is impossible to enter without a tour.