Happy Birthday Homer Plessy: A Change Is Gonna Come

Happy St. Patrick’s Day this March 17, which also is the birthday of Homer Plessy, who was born in New Orleans on March 17, 1862 and is one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  His work and action of trying to take a train led to one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history.

Homer Plessy’s Train Ride

Thirty years after his birth, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on a Louisiana railroad on June 7, 1892. Plessy, who was part African-American, was working with the civil rights group Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans to challenge segregation laws.

The Committee had notified the railroad of what was happening.  And when Plessy sat down in a car for white riders only, a conductor asked him about his race. Plessy was then arrested.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.  In the case, Plessy overwhelmingly lost by a vote of 7-1.  In the case, the Court upheld the state’s segregation law under a doctrine permitting “separate but equal” facilities.

Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority, claiming that if one views separate facilities for the races as implying one is inferior, that was “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” (163 U.S. at 551.) Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was from Kentucky, was the lone dissenter on Plessy’s side.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke’s famous song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” may have been partly inspired by an incident similar to Plessy’s that happened in the same state. According to Peter Guralnick’s Cooke biography Dream Boogie, in 1963 Cooke and his band tried to check into a segregated Holiday Inn hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The clerk would not let them check in.  Cooke argued with the clerk until his wife and others convinced him to leave because they feared reprisals. Soon thereafter, the police tracked them down and charged them with creating a public disturbance.

Cooke wrote and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” the same year as the hotel incident. In the song, Cooke wrote, “Somebody keep telling me ‘don’t hang around.’ / It’s been a long, a long time coming, /But i know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” Other national factors also inspired Cooke to write the song, such as Bob Dylan’s songs and sit-in protests taking place in the south.

The Legacy of Homer Plessy

Homer Plessy died on March 1, 1925, so he did not get to see Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history, overruled. But his cause did eventually win. The Supreme Court overruled the case in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, which was later followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Not long ago, the descendants of Homer Plessy got together with the descendants of Louisiana Judge John Howard Ferguson, the other named party in Plessy v. Ferguson. The two families created the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to work for equality.

Around 60 years after Homer Plessy took a seat on the train, another person helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement like Plessy did, by refusing to give up her seat in 1955.  In that year, Rosa Parks’s refusal led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a landmark moment in the struggle for Civil Rights.

When years later Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Rosa Parks sought comfort in listening to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” She said Cooke’s voice was “like medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.” (Guralnick, p. 651.)

There is a little of Homer Plessy’s voice in the song too.

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