Democrat John Bel Edwards ‘Family Tradition’ Included Enforcement of Segregationist Plessy v. Ferguson Decision

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during a press conference to update the public on FEMA's disaster recover and temporary housing programs on August 19, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Last week Louisiana was overwhelmed with flood water causing at least thirteen deaths and thousands of damaged homes. (Photo by …
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Louisiana’s incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards released a campaign ad in July touting the importance of his “family tradition” of law enforcement.

Elected governor in 2015, Edwards is seeking re-election to a second term, and faces two Republicans, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and businessman Eddie Rispone in the October 12 “jungle primary.” If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a November runoff election.

“One of the greatest influences in my life that made me who I am today, was growing up in a law enforcement family,” Edwards said in his July ad.

“My father was a sheriff. My grandfather and great-grandfather were sheriffs. One of my brothers is a sheriff, and another is a police chief,” he continued.

“It’s that family tradition of serving and protecting for generations that made me want to go to West Point and become an Airborne Ranger. What I’m reminded of every day as governor, is that my greatest responsibility is still fighting for and protecting our families,” Edwards concluded in the ad.

You can watch that ad here:

Four generations of the Edwards family have served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana. Tangipahoa Parish was organized as a new parish in 1869 from parts of Washington Parish and St. Tammany Parish during Reconstruction.

Millard Fillmore Edwards, Gov. Edwards’ great-grandfather, served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, from 1898 to 1900.

Frank Millard Edwards, Sr., Gov. Edwards’ grandfather, served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, from 1928 to 1948.

Frank Millard Edwards, Jr., Gov. Edwards’ father, served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, from 1968 to 1980.

Daniel Edwards, Gov. Edwards’ brother, has served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, since 2004.

The record of the first two generations of Edwards family sheriffs–the great-grandfather and grandfather John Bel Edwards references in his July ad–when it comes to enforcement of segregationist laws and policies is part of his “family tradition of serving and protecting.”

That record, as was the case for all law enforcement officers in Louisiana during that era, includes enforcement of the segregationist policies legalized during the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which came just two years before Millard Fillmore Edwards was named sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish.

Writing at 64 Parishes, a project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Keith Weldon Medley, author of We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson,  summarized the impact of the decision, which originated in a test case of the impact a Louisiana state law had on racial segregation in the United States, and particularly the South:

Plessy v. Ferguson, a US Supreme Court decision handed down on May 18, 1896, enacted “separate but equal” racial segregation as the law of the land for nearly six decades to follow, and it stands as one of three watershed civil rights cases in American history. The case was initiated from the 1892 arrest of New Orleanian Homer Plessy, who purposely tested the constitutionality of Louisiana’s segregated trains by boarding a whites-only passenger car.

One of Louisiana’s most famous cases, Plessy joins Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) as key rulings on the US civil rights timeline. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy sanctioned racial segregation on railroad trains and provided a legal umbrella for all Jim Crow laws that forced African Americans to live as second-class citizens.

“Confident that the federal government would defer to the states on issues involving race, Louisiana and other southern states passed additional segregation laws. ‘Separate but equal’ remained accepted doctrine until its repudiation in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education,” Medley concluded.

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision put an end to several decades of post-Civil War integration in Louisiana, as Medley wrote in his book, saying:

In 1869, Louisiana became the only Southern state to introduce an integrated school system, and in 1870, a Louisiana statute removed the state’s ban against interracial marriages. One by one, legal barriers to public accomodations, suffrage, and education fell. In the last forty years of the nineteenth century, Louisiana’s African-descent community produced an interim governor, three lieutenant governors, six state officers, thirty-two state senators, and ninety-five state representatives. Additionally, the people of the state elected nineteen black sheriffs, thirteen black tax collectors, twelve parish assessors, thirteen parish coroners, two parish judges, and four town mayors. Male suffrage became enshrined in the [Louisiana State] Constitution in 1870.

“Two years after the Plessy decision, Louisiana passed one of the first laws officially stripping blacks of the right to register to vote,” Nikki Brown wrote of the impact of the infamous Supreme Court case throughout the state, and continued:

In essence, everything that could be segregated in Louisiana was. Public facilities for adults, including restaurants, hotels, night clubs, and cemeteries, were strictly segregated, as were public facilities for children such as amusement parks, playgrounds, and schools. By 1900, the line separating whites and blacks had become deeply entrenched in Louisiana’s culture. After 1902, New Orleans streetcars were segregated. A 1908 state law prohibited cohabitation (in marriage or domestic situations) between whites and blacks. Racial segregation in jails was required in 1920.

Gov. Edwards’ great-grandfather, Millard Fillmore Edwards, as well as his grandfather, Frank Millard Edwards, Sr., served as sheriff of Tangipahoa County during the “separate but equal” era ushered into the state by the Plessy decision.

As part of his duties, Frank Millard Edwards, Sr. would have been required to implement the 1920 state law that mandated all jails be segregated.

Gov. Edwards has not commented on the segregationist element of the “family tradition” of law enforcement he speaks of in his ad.

Last month, however, he condemned the segregationist policies of his state during the first half of the 20th century in this tweet:

According to the most recent polls, Edwards leads his two Republican opponents in the October 12 “jungle primary” election, but remains shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

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