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I have no respect for the passion of equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy… Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Language tells you most of what you need to know about this book before you even bother to open it. The Supreme Court decision that legalized racism carries with it the same sort of incitement to anger that calling a defense of civil unions a justification of sodomy would. Not that this sort of tactic is unfamiliar to Fireside, a graduate of the New School for Social Research and author of a number of race baiting books. When white southern politicians would go out on the stump trying to frighten up poor white votes with the spectre of Reconstruction it was known as setting the woods on fire and that is a fair assessment of what is happening here.

Plessy was not a poor maid, tired from a days work – and entitled to sit anywhere there was a seat to be had! – but rather was a prosperous merchant recruited by the Comité des Citoyens to violate a statute. The violation was publicized before the fact and the Committee had hired a detective to be sure the arrest was made. Plessy’s lawyer, Albion Tourgee – author of Murvale Eastman: Christian Socialist and other equally forgettable books – was a carpetbagger who had fled North Carolina fifteen minutes ahead of a citizen’s committee of a different sort in 1877 right behind the northern army of occupation.

Look at the decision itself. Bare bones it says the states can constitutionally enact legislation requiring persons of different races to use “separate but equal” segregated facilities. Laws permitting and even requiring their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race. Such laws have generally been recognized as within the scope of the states’ police powers. The most common instance involves the establishment of separate schools, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of blacks have been longest and most earnestly enforced.

Of course all of this was reversed by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and its consequences that are with us yet. The Plessy decision was one that in some ways contravened the market – the efficient means by which social change occurs in a free society – since the trolley he had ridden was opposed to segregation since it meant each train had to carry additional cars and gradually between Plessy and Brown segregation was disappearing. This does not mean that a homogeneous society was growing up because there were and are social and cultural difference between black and white just as surely as there are between Irish and German or between Japanese and Spaniards but under the broad umbrella of being Americans the societies were finding more that united than divided them. They were able to realize this unity because the nation was composed of states and where some might go farther faster others could proceed at a pace that was rational for them – the entire time all citizens were free to vote with their feet and live someplace where they were comfortable.

Brown through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed all of that. The Federal government once again thought it could rule by edict without the just consent of the governed and force a model upon the market and have it efficient by decree. Where there was once a thriving black professional and entrepreneurial class there is now a nouveau riche clerics in the federal employment, where there were once exemplary black schools – including public ones – there are now NEA judged exemplary schools producing barely functional mediocrities. Rather than a rising tide lifting all boats the federal tide has swamped most of them to the benefit of no one.

The world was not perfect before Plessy. It was not perfect after Plessy. About the only good thing that can be said about Plessy is that it gave the market a chance to work – and it did because where my parents (after the decision) and grandparents (before the decision) had gone to segregated schools I went to an integrated school. Interestingly enough it was not a public one [they were still segregated] but a parochial one that was recognized as one of the finest because the parents had to monitor the progress of the student in cooperation with the teachers and parent, student and teacher were all members of the same church. The Church – being universal – transcended both the state and federal governments in its authority. What a radical concept.

Separate and unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court decision that legalized racism Harvey Fireside; introduction by Marc H. Morial Segregation Law and legislation United States History, Plessy, Homer Adolph Trials, litigation, etc. Hardcover. 1st Carroll & Graf ed. xx, 396 p.: ill.; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 359-365) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

On June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker, white in appearance but Negro according to the “one drop” rule that discriminated against anyone with even a small fraction of African blood by that injurious label, boarded a “Whites Only” railroad coach. He then volunteered his lineage to the conductor, who ordered that he move to a car set aside by state law for Negroes — and so began the first legal crusade of the modern racial conflict.

Starting with the assumption that the decision was incorrect Fireside presents his one-sided account of Plessy v. Ferguson, the ruling that set the parameters of the arguments over race for the first half of the twentieth century. Separate and Unequal combines carefully selected judicial records and historic photographs with a tainted portrait of post Reconstruction Louisiana and a tale of  Homer Plessy, his carpetbagger lawyer Albion Tourgee and Justice John Marshall Harlan, the decision’s sole dissenter, who argued against the Court majority opinion that “separate but equal” accommodations were not unjust and demeaning. Fireside dips rather than delves into history to create an early Rosa Parks and does a service to neither.


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