Education Opinion

Plessy AND Ferguson--and the Freedom Riders

By Nancy Flanagan — May 14, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dust off your eighth grade civics knowledge. Remember the landmark 1896 civil rights case, Plessy v. Ferguson, where the United States Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” facilities for different races were constitutional? The trial judge in that case, Judge John H. Ferguson, ruled that “Separate Car” laws for black and white railway passengers did not violate the constitution, but only in Louisiana; the ruling did not apply to cars that traveled between states. Homer Plessy, a mixed-race shoemaker, was deemed guilty of trying to ride in a White railcar in Louisiana, and the ruling was upheld on appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. (More here, here and here.)

In upholding that ruling, Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court majority, said:

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.

That ugly precedent--Plessy v. Ferguson--became the foundation of race-based law-making, sanctioning segregation in public facilities for 58 years. It was finally overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Fast-forward to 2006, when filmmaker Phoebe Ferguson returned to her hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Ferguson is the great-great granddaughter of Judge Ferguson--something she discovered by accident when she was in her 40s, as nobody in her family ever mentioned it. Attending a conference, she was introduced to a Marriott employee whose nametag read “Keith Plessy"--and discovered he was a descendant of the Plessy family whose name and heritage were intertwined with her own. They have become good friends and working partners, something that people they meet sometimes have a hard time believing.

Keith Plessy says it’s no longer Plessy versus Ferguson--it’s Plessy and Ferguson, the name of the Foundation they created with three mission goals: preservation of civil rights history, outreach on diversity issues, and education. Foundation programs not only teach the historic lessons of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, but focus on equity in educational opportunity, perpetuating the truth that separate but equal is inherently unequal.

The Save Our Schools March invited Ferguson to do a webinar on Thursday evening--and she accepted, bringing two guests: Shakti Belway, Attorney and Director of Policy and Community Engagement with the Southern Poverty Law Center and noted New Orleans educator, Dr. Raynard Sanders.

Participants heard the inspirational story of the Foundation’s inception and ongoing work. Ferguson also shared an early-draft plan to re-trace the route of the some of the original Freedom Rides, beginning in New Orleans, and stopping in cities to meet educators and parents committed to genuine equity in public education, culminating at the Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C, July 28-30, with original Freedom Riders speaking at the Rally on July 30.

Save Our Schools March is looking for volunteers to host riders and events in cities that were on any of the original Freedom Riders’ routes. We are hoping that teachers and families will step up to become part of a movement to connect the sacrifices and bravery of the Freedom Riders, 50 years ago this summer, to the education inequities and injustices (and rhetorical obfuscation) currently promoted in the name of “social justice.” (saveourschoolsmarch@gmail.com)

The second half of the Webinar gave educators and parents around the country a tour of what’s really happening in the NOLA area, which has become a petri dish for education “reform,” via a mish-mash of highly publicized charters. In spite of glossy photos and slogans, Belway reports, “post-Katrina, we have seen that separate but equal is much more pronounced than before Katrina.”

The real effect of turning most of the public school system over to charter operators has been community disenfranchisement. For-profit charter operators are free to sort, select and profit off poor children. There is autonomy--but no accountability, as 40% of charters have closed due to financial mismanagement. As one teacher from Louisiana commented Thursday night: “They’ve found a way to re-segregate our schools.”

“Choice” advocates (like commenters at this blog) might assert that de facto segregation is distinct from de jure segregation--that as long as parents nominally have the choice to send their children to charter schools, it shouldn’t matter that the schools are segregated. After all, lots of public schools are segregated, too, through economic disparity between neighborhoods and towns. This is logic reminiscent of Barbara Bush’s remark that Katrina refugees should find the experience of living in a gymnasium “working well for them, since they were underprivileged anyway.”

Webinar participants heard and shared their own stories of what’s happening in New Orleans: Students with disabilities being allowed to register, while simultaneously being told that the school could not accommodate their needs. Registration fees (not tuition, because that would be illegal--"fees”) of up to $1000. Charter registration deadlines as early as November of the previous school year, part of an application process as convoluted and opaque to poor families as getting into an Ivy League college. Kids escorted out of buildings as they sought application forms on their own. Widespread fudging of test data. Access denied.

Dr. Sanders said it best: People are being sold a bill of good in New Orleans, and our children believe they are not wanted in their own city. Their life chances have been diminished.

What does the “right to a public education” mean?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.