Plessy v. Furgeson (Landmark Supreme Court Cases), by David Cates
You really don’t need to read three books on the case of Plessy v. Furgeson, but that is what I did the day I read this book. That is not to say that this is by any means a bad book, because it is not, but when it is the third book one has read on the same day about the same subject, one tends to realize very quickly that there is not very much to say about the case. That would be true even if the way that this case was presented was not something I felt so profoundly ambivalent about. Regardless of what this book (and others) tries to say, I cannot feel it to be just to attempt to force people to view others in a friendly way and as social equals. In nowhere I have ever lived have I been looked at as a social equal by the people I was around, and that is being an articulate and well-educated white man. Obviously, the way that blacks were treated and excluded from proper education and social facilities that were kept up well was highly unequal and very wrong, but this book doesn’t seem to want to dwell on only that point, and thus I feel more ambivalent than I should about something this book views as clear cut good and evil.
The book is a short one, at around 150 pages, and it has a lot of pictures that try to convey the way the world looked during the late 1800’s. The author begins by discussing the Supreme Court and its rule in America’s political system, before moving (as is common in this sort of book) to the train ride that was set up by some New Orleans blacks to test a Louisiana law requiring separate carriages for white and black (1). AFter that the author moves to discuss slavery and the Civil War (2) as well as the problem of black codes and reconstruction (3) and the end of reconstruction (4) that led to the abandonment of trying to force black civil rights on an unwilling white South (and even on an unwilling white North). The author moves on to discussing the fight against segregation by the blacks of New Orleans, who had a long tradition of seeking their rights (5), as well as the beginning of the Plessy case in the Louisiana court system (6). The author discusses the changing society that boded ill for the arguments of Plessy’s attorneys (7) and the composition of the Supreme Court that made the decision, of whom only Harlan tends to be remembered by history for his stirring dissent (8). The last two chapters then look at changes in American society with regards to race that occurred after Plessy (9) and then after Brown v. Board of Education (10) that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
In reading this book and others, I am struck by the sense of the massive gap that exists between the hopes and expectations of black people in this country concerning the way society should look and the way that white people view it. It took somewhere close to three quarters of a million deaths in civil war for slavery to be ended in the country, and when it ended, only the most radical among Northerners were interested in giving freed blacks the means of economic freedom (given American views about the sanctity of property rights that I happen to share) or education to take up full civil equality. And then one has to deal with the thorny question of social equality, what that means, and why whites have long been unwilling to grant it. It is very hard to be just to those whom one has wronged because one has the (understandable) fear of revenge if equality should be achieved, which would tend to encourage one never to abuse or wrong or take advantage of someone in the first place, but that clearly did not happen with regards to race relations in the United States. And even knowing what happened, one wonders whether anyone could have expected it to be done any faster or any better given the feelings of white and black Americans. It is far easier to know what is right than to do what is right, and even when one seeks to do right, there are some things that simply cannot be justly coerced from others.