By Richard A. Webster | The Times-Picayune |May 11, 2016 —

Keith Plessy, the grand-nephew of Homer Plessy, stands at his ancestor’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

New Orleans — Were it not for Homer Plessy, who famously lost his New Orleans court challenge to segregation in 1896 and unwittingly established “separate but equal” as the official law of the United States, the civil rights movement might have proceeded differently.

The Tremé shoemaker’s act of defiance – an African American sitting in a rail car reserved for white people – helped overturn Jim Crow laws 58 years later and inspired young activists such as Rosa Parks to mount their own protests.

This is why, as the 120th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision approaches May 18, Keith Plessy is making a push to award his fourth generation ancestor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. There’s just one problem: Time is running out.

Keith Plessy needs to collect 100,000 signatures on a We the People petition on the White House’s website by Sunday (May 15) at midnight to receive consideration and an official response. As of Wednesday, fewer than 800 people had signed the petition.

Plessy said he believes he can reach their goal. But should that fail, he hopes President Barack Obama will make the decision to honor Homer Plessy with the medal, regardless of how many signatures are collected. There are no official rules to the Medal of Freedom selection process. The president may award the honor to anyone of his or her choosing.

[Our Times: Homer Plessy wasn’t the first to challenge segregation]

To that end, Plessy enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who sent a letter asking Obama to recognize Homer Plessy in the same way that President Bill Clinton did Parks 20 years ago.

“The courage, commitment and sacrifice of Homer Adolph Plessy opened the gates of the Civil Rights movement across the South,” Richmond wrote in his letter, which was signed by 38 members of Congress. “Bestowing the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Mr. Plessy would rightfully recognize the impact his life and fight for justice had on the advancement of blacks in America. Our country is a better place because of Homer Adolph Plessy.”

Homer Plessy embarked on his historic journey at age 30 when the Citizens Committee, a mixed-race civil rights group, recruited him in 1892 to challenge Louisiana’s Separate Car Law. It dictated that white and black train passengers travel in separate accommodations.

Plessy, who had previously worked to reform New Orleans’ public education system, bought a ticket at the East Louisiana Railroad Depot and boarded a Covington-bound train at Press and Royal streets, in what is now Bywater. He purposefully took a seat in the “whites only” section. When ordered to move, he refused, leading to his arrest.

The case, known as Plessy v. Ferguson, ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices voted 7-1 against Plessy on May 18, 1896. The ruling upheld segregation and established the separate but equal doctrine, making it legal to separate the races as long as the public facilities were equal.

The other name in the case title is that of John Howard Ferguson, the judge who had ruled against Plessy in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.

Plessy returned to private life, working as an insurance salesman for a time before he died at the age of 62 in 1925.

That appeared to be the end of his story and his opportunity to influence history. But 58 years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the NAACP used arguments made on Plessy’s behalf, specifically the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provision, in Brown v. Board of Education to strike down separate but equal laws.

Plessy’s civil disobedience also served as an inspiration for people such as Parks, an African American who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, in a coordinated effort to fight segregation in the South.

“Rosa Parks reminded us all that . . . for millions of Americans, our history was full of weary years, our sweet land of liberty bearing only bitter fruit and silent tears,” Clinton said when awarding Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, according to the Chicago Tribune. “In so many ways, Rosa Parks brought America home to our founders’ dream.”

Keith Plessy said the same sentiment rings true for his ancestor, so he hopes to see Obama honor Homer Plessy in the same way. New Orleans has previously honored Plessy with a historical marker at Press and Royal streets and a plaque on his tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

“Plans are already in progress at the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square to install Homer Adolph Plessy’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Cabildo’s Sala Capitular, the very room where the case was originally heard in 1892,” Keith Plessy said. “A permanent exhibit is being prepared for the Crescent City’s Tri-Centennial Celebration in 2018.

“My granddaughter, Aminah, will be three years old in September. I would love to have her meet President Obama when he posthumously awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to our ancestor.”