Eric Foner Reviews "Separate" by Steve LuxenbergHistorians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, book review, Brown vs. Board of Education, desegregation, constitutional history
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University. His latest book, “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” will appear in September.
A few years ago the legal scholar Jamal Greene published “The Anticanon,” an article that identified the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history. High on the list was Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case in which the court upheld a Louisiana law requiring railroad companies to provide “equal but separate” coaches for white and black passengers. Legally mandated segregation, the court ruled, did not violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to all persons of the equal protection of the laws.
Thanks to the iconic status achieved six decades later by Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled it with regard to public education, Plessy is undoubtedly the most widely known of a series of late-19th-century Supreme Court decisions that eviscerated what Republican leader Carl Schurz called the “constitutional revolution” after the Civil War — the three amendments that ended slavery and sought to establish the legal foundations for equal citizenship regardless of race. But few Americans know much about the cast of characters central to the case. They include Albion W. Tourgée, who as a judge fought the Ku Klux Klan in Reconstruction North Carolina and argued the case before the court; Henry Billings Brown, a scion of the New England elite who wrote the 7-to-1 decision; John Marshall Harlan, the slave-owning Kentuckian who fought for the Union in the Civil War and became the lone dissenter in Plessy; and members of the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans, descendants of the city’s prewar mixed-race free black community, who initiated the campaign to overturn the Separate Car Act.
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