Louis A. Martinet was a key player in the fight for civil rights in New Orleans. Born December 28, 1849, his multiracial identity as the son of a free woman of color and a Belgian man placed him within the community of Creoles of color in Louisiana. Joining other Black men elected to political office during the Reconstruction era, Martinet represented his hometown of St. Martinville in the state legislature at the age of twenty-three. He later earned his law degree from Straight University Law School in 1876 as its first Black graduate, setting a precedent for people of color to follow.
In 1889, Martinet founded The Crusader newspaper in New Orleans to report on racial violence and civil rights issues in Louisiana. Shortly after the 1890 Separate Car Act (SCA) was introduced in the state legislature, he wrote in protest of the law and vowed a legal challenge. The next year, Martinet, joined by Rodolphe Desdunes and other Creole leaders such as Aristide Mary and C. C. Antoine, and formed the Comité des Citoyens (Citizen’s Committee) to mount the legal challenge to the SCA. The Crusader became the megaphone for the Comité’s politics and ideas about public rights.
Albion Tourgée, a white northerner, learned about the SCA and the work of the Comité by reading Black newspapers including The Crusader. Tourgée had dedicated his life to civil rights as a lawyer, legislator, and writer, specifically using his writing to advocate for Black rights. In his column, A Bystander’s Notes, he criticized the SCA as a violation of the 14th amendment and praised Martinet and the Comité for their protests. Martinet offered Tourgée the entire Comité’s fund of $1,412.70 to take the case to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS), but Tourgée refused to take the funds and offered his legal services pro bono.
In their correspondence, Tourgée and Martinet devised a legal strategy. Originally, Tourgée proposed that a woman of color who could pass as white board a train car reserved for white travelers. He deliberately wanted a white-passing person to highlight the arbitrary nature of racial classifications because the SCA allowed train conductors to determine a person’s race to enforce the law. Martinet, however, worried that the local context of racial fluidity in New Orleans might foil the plan. “People of tolerably fair complexion, even if unmistakably colored, enjoy here a large degree of immunity from the accursed prejudice,” Martinet wrote Tourgée. Nevertheless, he agreed to Tourgée’s plan and enacted a first attempt that failed after Judge John Ferguson ruled the SCA did not apply to interstate travel. For the second attempt, he selected Homer Plessy, a shoemaker of a fraction of African descent, to board a train traveling within Louisiana. Martinet also convinced the railroad company to cooperate with the plan and hired a private investigator to ensure Plessy’s safe arrest within the racial tensions and violence in Louisiana.
The strategy succeeded, and Plessy was arrested on June 7, 1892 for violating the SCA. Judge Ferguson upheld his conviction in the New Orleans court, and the Comité’s lawyers appealed the case through the Louisiana Supreme Court, housed in the Cabildo, until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. A miscommunication caused Martinet to miss the oral arguments in Washington D.C., but his influence was evident in Tourgée’s radical argument. He asserted that the 14th Amendment extended citizenship, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and nullified states’ legal authority to define citizenship. His arguments also emphasized that racial categories are arbitrary and therefore cannot be a sound reason for legal discrimination. Finally, Tourgée asked the justices how they would feel as Black people subject to the SCA: “What humiliation, what rage would then fill the judicial mind!” Through these comments, Tourgée reflected the ideas of dignity central to public rights and citizenship that Martinet and Desnudes held and expressed in The Crusader.
In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld precedents established during the last three decades that narrowed the scope of federal protections of the rights of Black citizens. It ruled that citizenship and racial segregation fell under the authority of the state, ultimately deciding that segregation was legal as long as the accommodations were equal, codifying the doctrine of “separate but equal” that ushered in an era of Jim Crow rule. After this decision, the Comité dissolved and Martinet closed The Crusader offices for lack of funding that same year, turning to a career in medicine.
The blow to civil rights in Plessy v. Ferguson did not end racial activism or Martinet’s influence, however. The sole dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan asserted that the U.S. Constitution was “color-blind,” providing activists with judicial backing to work toward federal civil rights protections. Today, a group of African American attorneys make up the Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Legal Society, devoted to honoring Martinet’s legacy through support for Black lawyers, pro bono work, and community service. Martinet understood the long-term impacts of his efforts and that it was up to those who followed him to continue fighting for civil rights. Writing to Tourgée in 1893, he said, “you may not live to see the fruit of your labors and sacrifice, or to receive the gratitude of those benefitted by them. It will be reserved to future generations to properly and justly estimate them.”