Sunday, February 23, 2020

Overlooked: Need to Remember Civil Rights Heroes

      Nearly a century after his unremarked-on death, Homer Plessy has gained a measure of the recognition that he deserves for challenging racial segregation in his home state of Louisiana in the 1890s. Plessy's name is immortalized in law books and American history as the unsuccessful litigant in the Supreme Court's disgraceful decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to uphold legally mandated racial segregation in passenger railroad cars.
      Plessy's name may be well known, but his life and death escaped the Times's editors' attention when the former shoemaker and civil rights activist died in New Orleans at age 61 on March 1, 1925. The Times, the nation's self-described "newspaper of record," published a full-length obituary last month [Jan. 31] under a headline that succinctly captures Plessy's place in history: "He sat on a train and stood up for civil rights."
      The obituary, byTimes contributor Glenn Rifkin, details Plessy's role in working with a local citizens' committee in a staged test of Louisiana's then-new Separate Car Act. Rifkin treats the episode as a precursor to Rosa Parks' more successful anti-segregation protest 60 years later in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. The obituary is one in a series of life stories of important African Americans long since deceased that the Times has been publishing over the past year as part of its "Overlooked" project.
      Some of the others featured in the project so far include, for example, the ragtime master Scott Joplin (1867-1917); the inventor Granville T. Woods, known as "the black Edison (1856-1910); and the New York City real estate magnate known as the father of Harlem, Philip A. Payton Jr. (1876-1917).  Others include the crusading anti-lynching journalist Ida Wells (1862-1931); the Greenwich Village transgender activist Marsha Johnson (1945-1992); and the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen (1891-1964).
      In introducing the project, the Times noted that obituaries published since the newspaper's founding in 1851 "have been dominated by white men." The project's stated aim is to "add the stories of other remarkable people," with evident effort to correct the underrepresentation of women and people of color. Along with the many obituaries of African Americans, the project has also published obituaries of such famous white female artists as the photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) and the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1964).
      However important the Times's belated recognition of historic African Americans may be, a leading American historian has recently noted a larger issue of public remembrance: the relatively few public monuments to civil rights figures in comparison to the much larger number of Confederate statues, monuments, markers, and so forth. Alison Parker, chair of the history department at the University of Delaware, noted the discrepancy in an essay published in the Times earlier this month [Feb. 6].
      "There are now more than 1,740 Confederate monuments, statues, flags, place names and other symbols in public spaces across the country, not counting more than 2,600 markers, battlefields, museums and cemeteries that commemorate the Confederate dead or the many hundreds of statues of staunch segregationists," Parker wrote. "To date, only about 115 have been removed. In stark contrast, fewer than 100 monuments pay tribute to the civil rights movement."
      Most of the Confederate monuments, Parker explained, were erected not immediately after the end of the Civil War, but in the 1890s and 1900s ”by Southern whites hoping to justify the spread of Jim Crow while erasing the legacy of Reconstruction." The resistance to removing or displacing some of those monuments glosses over those political motives in arguing against "erasing history." Parker aptly characterizes the monuments as "symbols of white supremacy."
      The smaller number of civil rights memorials include most prominently the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., the only major monument to a non-government official on the National Mall. The National Park Service site, dominated by the larger-than-life granite statute of King, opened in 2011, more than 40 years after his assassination.
      Parker is author of a forthcoming biography of Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), who founded the National Association of Colored Women and played an important but under-recognized role in the women's suffrage movement before ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Her role and the earlier role played in the suffrage movement by the former slave Sojourner Truth are gaining some belated recognition along with the better-known white suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cody Stanton. A monument planned for New York City's Central Park was redesigned in August 2019 to include a statue of Sojourner Truth along with Anthony and Stanton.
      In another instance of belated recognition, Maryland unveiled statues this month [Feb. 11] on the statehouse grounds to honor two of the state's historic black figures: Harriet Tubman, the ex-slave famous for her work with the Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery as a youngster and became a nationally and internationally prominent advocate for abolition.
      A statue honoring Rosa Parks was installed two months earlier on the grounds of the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery [Dec. 11, 2019]. Homer Plessy, it appears, has not been memorialized in bronze or stone, but he is remembered in New Orleans. The site of his arrest, the Press Street Rail Yard, is marked with a plaque relating the event; and Plessy's grave, in the city's St. Louis Cemetery, also bears a marker explaining the episode. The state of Louisiana went further in 2005  by proclaiming June 7, the date of Plessy's arrest, as Homer Plessy Day statewide.
      In the obituary, Rifkin notes that Plessy paid the $25 fine for riding in the whites-only car after the Supreme Court's decision and that he "vanished into obscurity" in contrast to Parks' later celebrity after the Montgomery bus boycott. Along with King, the leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights revolution deserve at least as much recognition, if not more, than the Confederate generals and Silent Sams who fought with supposed honor for a far less honorable cause.

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