Separate: The Story Of Plessy v. Ferguson, And America’s Journey From Slavery To Segregation, by Steve Luxenberg
Given the fact that the author works for the Washington Post, a newspaper that is better used for litter boxes and toilet paper and composting than for reading, it is amazing that the author is able to string grammatically correct sentences together in a coherent fashion. It is less surprising that the author spends about 80% of the book’s considerable heft talking about the context of the case and only about 20% talking about the case as it worked its way through the Louisiana court system and then to the Supreme Court, a process that took a surprisingly long time. It is also not a surprise that the author has a bit of an agenda in showing the dissatisfaction of blacks with the bipartisan peace that had been made between Republicans and Democrats to put racial change on the back burner, and in seeking to attack with corporate-minded Republicans and Southern Democrats, as that is the contemporary political coalition that the author has the least degree of fondness for. Likewise, the author has surprisingly a lot to say about the lives of some of the people involved in the case more than the people the case was actually about, namely the free blacks of various hues of Louisiana.
This book is about 500 pages long (far longer than it needed to be to cover its topic) and is divided into four parts and 22 chapters. The author begins with a prologue and with a picture of Tourgee upset that he has missed his change to make an epic oral argument in Plessy v. Ferguson, only he hadn’t missed his chance, and a cast of characters that focuses around a small set of people: Harlan of Kentucky, Brown of New England, Tourgee of Ohio, and the free people of color of New Orleans and the rest of the United States. We see the ambition of the various figures, inevitably involving the law and politics, in the first part of the book, which takes up five chapters and begins with company policies in New England against the seating of blacks in white compartments in the antebellum area. After that the author looks at the behavior of the various people involved during the Civil War, subtly portraying Brown as a lightweight for not being willing to fight in the Civil War while Harlan and Tougee fight for the Union. The next four chapters after that look at the rise of the three men in the postwar period and the rise of equal but separate in Louisiana in the North. There are five more chapters that look at the period of the end of reconstruction and what it meant for blacks and their white supporters, before the last part finally looks at the resistance of blacks to separate but equal that culminated in Plessy v. Furgeson, and a short epilogue that looked at what happened to the main people involved afterward.
In reading a book like this one has to be aware of the different layers involved here. Among the layers is the author’s desire both to impugn the South as well as the North for inabilities in accepting the social equality of blacks with whites in the postwar period. The author has a strong interest in biography, showing some characters as fierce defenders of racial justice and pointing to the progress others (like Harlan) made. The author clearly brings some contemporary political agendas as well, subtly portraying those who are pro-business as being unsympathetic to the plight of blacks, and disregarding any hint that the social equality that is (understandably) wanted by blacks and others is something that requires the free consent of the whites involved. Indeed, the whole books smacks of coercion, both the coercion of unreconstructed Southern whites who wanted to preserve as much of the antebellum system of racial domination in the postwar period and the coercion that blacks sought through Congress and the Supreme Court to defend their own interests. And I could not help but be troubled by that approach.