Vol. 13 No. 10 (October 2003)
WE AS FREEMEN: PLESSY V. FERGUSON by Keith W. Medley. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2003. 223 pp. Cloth $23.00. ISBN: 1-58980-120-2.
Reviewed by Martin J. Sweet, Department of Political Science, Dickinson College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This book explores the people and politics central to the storied PLESSY v. FERGUSON (1896) decision. The book is an in-depth study of the circumstances in which the case famously overruled by BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954) came to the Supreme Court. It is an accessible book suitable for undergraduate students and a general audience.
Keith Medley is a freelance writer from Louisiana, who has previously written on this topic, including an article in Smithsonian Magazine that served as a template of sorts for this book. He exhaustively labored through arcane archives to bring to life the individuals at the heart of the case, including Homer Plessy and John Ferguson, as well as the players in the Comité des Citoyens – the group that organized the challenge to Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. Medley does not offer much new information about the Court or jurisprudence, as other case studies, like Anthony Lewis’ GIDEON’S TRUMPET, have done. He does provide some brief biographical sketches of the Justices on the Fuller Court. But students who have not already had exposure to literature on the courts may have difficulty successfully navigating through the legal maneuverings on their own.
Homer Plessy challenged the Louisiana law that provided for separate train cars for white and black passengers. While most scholars are familiar with the fact that there was some coordination involved between Plessy and the East Louisiana Railroad to challenge the segregationist legislation, the long term planning of the Comité des Citoyens in this effort was quite remarkable. Plessy was not the first challenge, but rather the second in a carefully orchestrated sequence of attacks, on the law. Five months before the Plessy ride on the rails, the Comité des Citoyens had arranged for Daniel Desdunes, another light-skinned black man, to travel on an interstate train from Louisiana to Alabama, but Medley fails to mention that the group could have raised a dormant commerce clause or preemption type claim against the State regulation following Desdunes’ arrest. In the end, of course, Plessy lost his case regarding intrastate travel before the Supreme Court, owing to the institutionalization of the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Taking an historical and chronological approach, Medley presents biographies of Homer Plessy, John Ferguson, and Albion Tourgee in Chapters One, Two, and Three. Plessy, the son of politically active and free people of color, was born in New Orleans in 1863. His family was active in the Unification Movement, and his own formative years came during the ascendancy of Democrat rule following the Hayes-Tilden Compromise. Important to the Plessy’s story is that his skin was light enough “to pass” for white, thus allowing him to purchase the railroad ticket and board the train without immediately raising the ire of white passengers.
John Ferguson was the judge assigned to hear the criminal case, and was then named as the respondent in the Constitutional challenge to the Separate Car Act. Although Ferguson only played a small role in the case, Medley castigates the trial judge with Thoreau’s quote: “[t]hey consider, not whether the … Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional…. They persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity” (p.44). Although Plessy had other counsel provided by the Comité des Citoyens for his criminal hearing, Albion Tourgee was a former “Union soldier, Reconstruction-era North Carolina judge, and noted and perennially controversial nineteenth-century writer and social commentator” (p.53) who argued Plessy’s case at the Supreme Court and was the counsel of record.
While the biographical chapters at the beginning of the book are rich in detail, including the occupational strata occupied by Homer Plessy’s neighbors, the political affiliation of the family of John Ferguson’s wife, and the battle record of Albion Tourgee in the Civil War, it is in the middle chapters of Medley’s book that its greatest strength is revealed—the ability to provide an appealing teaching text. Chapter Four, in a mere 20 pages, traces the legal and political development from DRED SCOTT to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Chapter Five provides a detailed legislative and political history of the Separate Car Act. Chapter Six explores the machinations of the Comité des Citoyens in its journey to challenge the constitutionality of the law. And Chapter Seven details the specifics of Plessy’s activities following his selection by the Comité through his conviction and appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Each of these chapters could be readily used for teaching, as each can be used to explain the complex relation between law and politics, while grounded in the experience of Homer Plessy. Medley explores the electoral success of blacks following the Civil War, the rise of Jim Crow, interest group litigation strategies, and the legal process of crime to trial to appeal – all in the context of an accessible and familiar case.
The last chapters of the book, Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten, are less likely candidates for useful teaching tools. These chapters trace the decline of the Comité des Citoyens in the years awaiting Supreme Court review, provide brief encyclopedic style biographies of the Supreme Court Justices on the Fuller Court, excerpt the PLESSY opinions, and analyze briefly what transpired between PLESSY and BROWN. These areas of study are beyond the author’s strength of archival research, and Medley’s lack of legal background makes these chapters less informative than the rest of the book.
Scholars, including those involved in the burgeoning University of Kansas Press Landmark Law Case series, have sought to use detailed histories of famous cases as a window to understand the legal process and greater legal questions. This book should not be confused with that body of work. Instead, Medley’s detailed history stands on its own as the most complete historical accounting of one of the Court’s most infamous decisions.
Lewis, Anthony. 1989 . GIDEON’S TRUMPET. New York: Vintage Books.
BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 394 U.S. 294 (1954).
SCOTT v. SANDFORD, 19 Howard 393 (1856).
PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
Copyright 2003 by the author, Martin J. Sweet.
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