A comparative review of Jim Crow laws–ending when Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat–laws that began when Homer Plessy lost his discrimination lawsuit of the railroad in the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that enacted ‘separate but equal.’
Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat and challenged Jim Crow laws enacted in 1896 when Homer Plessy sued the railroad for discriminatory seating on a Louisiana train in a case that reached the Supreme Court.
Rosa Parks reacted to discrimination on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus similarly to Homer Plessy’s reaction on a Louisiana train some 60 years earlier. On the surface, the two activists and their actions show similar qualities, including their protest mode–segregated public transportation systems–a bus and a train in the Jim Crow South–and both arrested for the same offence, civil disobedience.
One of the biggest differences in the way protestors of the pre-modern civil rights movements behaved was dictated by gender. While male protestors were often brutalized and even lynched, female protestors were often subjected to sexual violence as a way to discourage acts of socialand political protest, legally defined and punishable by Jim Crow law as civil disobedience. Sexual violence against black women communicated to the entire community that civil disobedience would not be tolerated. Many white women were involved in the destruction of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s from their participation in voter registration like Sherie Labedis, to driving workers to their jobs during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to participation in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, marches.
Rosa Parks, a descendant of slavery with a significant amount of white blood apparent in her physical appearance, seems never to have thought of herself as a remarkable woman, as the world eventually did. A modest woman, by all accounts, Parks simply seemed to think of herself as an ordinary human being with rights that were being denied to her and others like her. Wanting to make a living and wanting fair treatment, Parks willingly became an instrument in the name of a cause to accomplish those goals for herself and other African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama.
However, Rosa Parks and others working with her toward this cause, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., learned a fact soon after the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To get simple human rights such as using a public restroom, Jim Crow in the United States had to be fully awakened in order to finally be put to rest. Lawyers arguing against Jim Crow eventually proved that great emotional and economic harm was heaped upon the group that was segregated and treated with contempt by society.
Segregation = Discrimination
In the 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, U.S. Supreme Court justices accepted the equation above and legally struck down Jim Crow. However, the Brown decision did little to fundamentally change African American daily life. But the death of Jim Crow had begun.
What was needed to kill Jim Crow for good?
It was decided that civil rights test cases across the nation would bring about the demise of Jim Crow. Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Woolworth sit-ins, the Freedom Riders and other movement participants, black and white, would finish the demise of the Jim Crow system through protests, demonstrations, marches, legal action in the courts, and exposure by the media.
Homer Plessy, on the other hand, also an instrument in the name of a cause, was born into a family of free people of color in New Orleans in 1863. Being of this free and mixed-race caste, Plessy received better treatment and education than other African Americans in New Orleans during that period, unlike the Alabama family of Rosa Parks, who received no special treatment. Because Plessy was nearly white and had become accustomed to nearly white treatment, he stated in his case that he deserved to be treated as a white person because of his nearly white heritage, while Parks simply pushed for equal and humane treatment.
For several reasons, not completely unrelated to the subtle distinctions within their genetic makeup, the outcome of Plessy’s case was different from the outcome of Parks’s case. The primary reason for the difference in the outcome of these two cases are the historic periods in which Homer Plessy and Rosa Parks lived and made their protests. Plessy lived to see the beginning of systematic and legalized Jim Crow in America. Rosa Parks lived to see its end.
At the time of Plessy’s protest in the 1890s, the United States was still in a mood to sustain segregated society with built-in and deliberate discrimination. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise to ensure the stability of Jim Crow with members of the Klan being elected officials and figures of authority in the community. Therefore, at the time of Homer Plessy’s protest, the Supreme Court was forced to be cautious in any ruling that affected the treatment of people of color, leaving civil rights and race relations under state and local government control.
By contrast, in the 1950s at the time of Parks’s protest, the United States had begun to experience foreign pressures in its powerful world leadership role. Not only was segregation and discrimination present in the U.S. Jim Crow South, but also in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital; the financial centers of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities; and throughout the rest of the nation.
Becoming a domestic burden by the 1950s, U.S. race relations surfaced as a useful propaganda tool for communists to beat over the head of democracy. News of racial indignities in the United States traveled around the globe through international media coverage. Further, visiting dignitaries took stories home of their being subjected to discrimination, having been mistaken for African American or some other American ethnic group.
Other U.S. citizens of color and native people in U.S. territories were also subjected to the same Jim Crow treatment as African Americans. People with darker skin color or some other foreign feature to their speech, customs, religion or physical characteristics made them easily distinguishable from the ruling class and, therefore, easy to see and mark for discrimination.
The hypocrisy of the American democratic facade was cracking when Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The cause Rosa Parks represented was the modern Civil Rights Movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a major social activist in the 1960s. It was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 that King became acquainted with Rosa Parks, assumed the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, became the leading civil rights figure in the United States and helped to create a national path out of the Jim Crow system.
The cause Homer Plessy represented was a futile battle against a society that was not willing to take a mirror to itself and see its hypocrisy. The attitudes of slavery were still too fresh in the minds of the ruling class, as well as the former slaves. Some of these people, new to freedom, felt helpless under the Jim Crow system. Feelings of inferiority persisted in the black community and some were not willing to risk their fragile freedom for a fight they were certain they could not win.
Rosa Parks was born in 1913, less than two decades after Homer Plessy’s protest on the train. At the time of Parks’s birth, the United States of America was in no better mood toward former slaves than it had been before the Civil War or after Reconstruction. Some say the mood was worse.
Parks was born in a small Alabama town near Tuskegee, historic in its own right, later the location of Tuskegee Institute, the Tuskegee Army Air Base and the training facility of the Tuskegee Airmen. Although slavery was no longer a legal institution at the time that Parks was born and the time of the Plessy protest, the subtext was still inferiority–back doors, deplorable living conditions, no education, disenfranchisement–in the daily lives of African Americans and other people of color.
Born and raised under the legal impact of Jim Crow, Rosa Parks and her family endured oppressive conditions of the Jim Crow South that were left over after slavery. Inferior schools and no professional career opportunities, and other discouraging signs marked her times.
Rosa Parks was only 18 years old when the sign above was constructed and erected in a Selma public park in her home state of Alabama.
A department store seamstress by profession when she grew up, Rosa Parks was fortunate to have been taught a marketable skill while attending a segregated normal school. When she was a little girl, school buses carrying white students to their school sped by sometimes slashing her with muddy water during the rainy season. Parks’s mother who had been a teacher in a colored school and her father a carpenter, both gave their young daughter encouragement in spite of her situation.
Homer Plessy was born during the Civil War in 1863, a few weeks after Abraham Lincoln authored and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Ironically, Plessy’s father was a carpenter like Parks’s father and his mother, named Rosa, was a seamstress, the same profession as Rosa Parks. However, during Plessy’s younger years in New Orleans, people of color could attend integrated schools, marry whom they chose and, since 1867, ride in any seat on the train.
However, after the Civil War ended 1865 and Reconstruction was abandoned in 1877, those rights began to fade with the withdrawal of the Federal Troops from the occupied southern states. With the disappearance of the enforcement of federal mandates, old racist practices returned nationwide. In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, re-establishing segregation. In 1891, Plessy and a group of Republican activists, writers, lawyers, businessmen, former Union soldiers and educators, formed a citizens’ committee to raise funds, secure legal representation and recruit volunteers for civil disobedience test cases to challenge segregation in New Orleans.
A nearly white colored man from New Orleans, Louisiana, Homer Plessy was chosen to challenge the railroad. Some consider Plessy’s protest more related to his own particular seven-eighths-French and one-eighth-African heritage than his desire to gain rights for African Americans in general.
In Louisiana, at that time, people of nearly white colored heritage thought themselves to be of a race that was different and separate from dark-skinned African Americans. The nearly white African American population of New Orleans had its own culture with others of its kind and usually only married within the group, as did Plessy himself and his parents.
White people treated nearly white people better than they treated dark-skinned people, judging light-skinned people proportionately better, the lighter their skin. The lighter group was allowed societal privilege because of blood kinship and physical similarities to the white community. Although nearly white colored people were looked down upon by white people, they were looked up to by black people, and thought of themselves as better. By purchasing a first-class train ticket and taking a seat in the white section of the train, it may be argued that Plessy was attempting to gain rights for people of his race.
The Rosa Parks and Homer Plessy cases may have been more different than similar, in that, Plessy was attempting to gain rights–not so much for all black people in Louisiana but–for people of his own nearly white social class, which he indicated when he declared to the conductor who collected his ticket that he was seven-eighths white and refused to sit in the train section reserved for African Americans.
Plessy, a Creole man of French and very slight African origin was asserting rights that people of his nearly white heritage had enjoyed over darker-skinned Negroes of the state. In spite of his racial denial, Plessy was arrested for attempting to receive accommodations in the first-class section of the train, reserved for white passengers and convicted for violating Louisiana racial segregation law, the Separate Car Act of 1890. Released the next day on a five-hundred-dollar bond, Plessy had set into motion the process of legal segregation the United States had never known, conditions of U.S. race relations that would linger for a century and would take an act of Congress to reverse.
PLESSY v. FERGUSON. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES 163 U.S. 537 May 18, 1896
“That petitioner (Homer Plessy) was a citizen of the United States and a resident of the State of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every recognition, right, privilege and immunity secured to the citizens of the United States of the white race by its Constitution and laws…”
The Plessy decision upheld states’ rights to enforce racial segregation in America, regardless of the lightness of skin tone of African Americans, like Homer Plessy, clearly demonstrating a loss of special privilege the nearly white Louisianans, like Homer Plessy. The new federal law had but one stipulation–separate but equal. Accommodations, services, education, transportation, military and all aspects of life must be upheld by states in separate but equal conditions.
In the Plessy decision, the high court firmly placed separate but equal at the center of U.S. race relations. For the first time in American history, unequal facilities and services were acknowledged by federal law. However, the states were allowed to set the standards and they made a mockery of the law.
Separate but equal allowed states’ rights to rule and they legislated race relations and civil rights as they wished, enforcing discrimination in every facet of American life including Jim Crow entertainment, which would last into early Hollywood and survive throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
This federal legislation forgave and enforced every human indignity against former slaves and other Americans of color, ethnic difference and features that were easily picked out of a crowd of ordinary Americans. In the Plessy decision, African American education suffered most. The route to poverty was paved with poor schools. Justified by southern politicians as unnecessary for those who were genetically unqualified for higher learning, poor schools were good enough for those who would not be hired for decent jobs even with a good education or allowed to vote with or without a literary test and poll tax. This type of discrimination was uniformly applied across non-white ethnic lines.
CNN Associate Producer, Gabriella Schwarz, wrote in her article Bill Clinton compares new voting laws to Jim Crow that the former president suggested Republicans were trying to change the nation’s voting laws into Jim Crow¸ the laws that had disenfranchised black voters before the Civil Rights Movement. “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the voter Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit a franchise that we see today,” Clinton said at Campus Progress’s annual conference in Washington. “Jim Crow laws, enacted between 1876 and 1965, included fees and laws historically used to keep African-Americans from voting. Republican governors and legislators are now trying to “keep most of you [young people] from voting next time.”
For example, during World War II (WWII) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the removal of Japanese Americans from homes and businesses they had owned for many years. This order was against the advice of his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who lobbied tirelessly on behalf of oppressed groups.
In the name of national security, the U.S. government justified the removal of all Japanese–citizens and immigrants–by their relationship to people in Japan, at war with the United States at the time. Japanese Americans were rounded up and herded into internment camps in the desert hundreds of miles from their previous home sites along the American West Coast. When these hard-working, productive and successful people were gone, their homes and businesses were pillaged and stolen, and their land sold, never to be returned to them, even after they were released. The discrimination against these American citizens did not end when they were released from their imprisonment.
The government showed an interest in ordering the internment of German- and Italian-Americans as well, but the idea was abandoned. Acculturation, assimilation and intermarriage made German and Italian immigrants and their descendants far more difficult to recognize among the larger American culture than Japanese families. In addition, German Americans comprised the largest ethnic group in the United States.
Reference to the constitutionality of the discriminatory treatment of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during WWII was made in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in striking down Plessy v. Ferguson. It was argued by NAACP attorneys in Brown that people could not be legally segregated because of their race or color, as was the case of Japanese people during WWII.
The United States of America designed its discrimination against other ethnic groups of Americans by its treatment model of African Americans, which was legalized by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In fact, other countries adopted the U.S. discrimination model for the treatment of their own unwanted populations.
So, in the end, Homer Plessy lost rights for people of his nearly white heritage and also other black people all over the nation when the Supreme Court of the United States decided Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Plessy sanctioned legal segregation of train transportation and also extended legal racial segregation of every other aspect of American life. The Plessy decision was argued to apply to other non-white people, such as Japanese, Mexican, Indians, Asian, Italians, Arabs and others of darker complexions and foreign customs. Many groups were routinely excluded, segregated and discriminated against in housing, transportation, education, employment, voting and other areas.
It was a given fact that black Americans who had the appearance of less African features took advantage of their traits in getting better treatment for themselves and their children. Homer Plessy was no different. As a matter of fact, Rosa Parks and her mother frequently entered the front of Montgomery buses, unlike other black bus riders who were forced to enter a rear door, some say, because Parks and her mother were light-skinned and some bus drivers allowed them this entry. In 1943, Rosa Parks tried to enter the front door of a bus, as she had been allowed before. When the bus driver would not allow her to enter the front door, she refused to ride and waited for another bus.
On December 1, 1955, the beautiful, smart, high-school educated, hard-working, 42-year-old seamstress, named Rosa Parks, boarded a bus after work and sat down on a bus seat designated as black seating. From stop to stop, the white section of the bus filled, leaving no vacant seats. The bus driver, familiar with this situation, ordered Rosa Parks to move from her seat to allow a white man to sit down.
Parks refused to move and was ordered by the bus driver several times to give up her seat for the man. Parks refused again and again until the bus driver haled a police officer to assist him in the matter. Still Parks refused to move.
- What was Rosa Parks thinking when she refused to move?
Did Rosa Parks intend to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
Was being tired on Rosa Parks’ mind?
Was Rosa Parks thinking in revolutionary terms?
What was Rosa Parks thinking when she was arrested?
It took a great deal of courage for Rosa Parks, Homer Plessy and others to accept being the test cases for civil rights and to be arrested, knowing they had little or no legal or physical protections after being taken into police custody. Remember, Jim Crow ruled and many people in the southern United States were being lynched by other people for no other reason than having darker skin, wanting to vote, desiring an education or speaking German over a neighbor’s fence.
Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, chosen by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations, listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg in New York and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.
Nash has work in the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford; The African American West, A Century of Short Stories; Reflections in Black, History of Black Photographers 1840 – Present; Ancestry; Companion to Southern Literature; Texas Through Women’s Eyes; Southwestern American Literature Journal; The Source: guidebook to American genealogy; Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics; and others.
Robin Fruble of Southern California said, “Every white person in America should read this book (Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s)! Sunny Nash writes the story of her childhood without preaching or ranting but she made me realize for the first time just how much skin color changes how one experiences the world. But if your skin color is brown, it matters a great deal to a great number of people. I needed to learn that. Sunny Nash is a great teacher,” Fruble said.
© 2011 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.