Understanding Plessy v. Ferguson: History and Significance

"White" and "Colored" segregation signs in Topeka, Kansas, USA - stock photo

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In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state-imposed racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, a civil rights case involving Louisiana train cars. One of the most famous Supreme Court decisions, the case solidified the "separate but equal" doctrine as the law of the land and allowed racially divisive "Jim Crow" regulations to take hold in southern states.

Background

Plessy v. Ferguson challenged Louisiana's Separate Car Act of 1890, which required railway companies in the state to provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races." In 1891, a group of New Orleans residents known as the Comite de Citoyens approached a mixed-race man named Homer Plessy and asked him to help them get the law repealed. A 30-year-old shoemaker, Plessy identified himself as seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. He devoted much of his time to public service and had previously joined a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans. He was in a unique position to challenge the statute since many people assumed he was white, but by law, he was "black enough" to violate the Separate Car Act.

The Comite believed by choosing Plessy they could argue that consistent application of the law was impossible - as it did not define what "white" and "colored" actually meant. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class train ticket on the East Louisiana Railway and sat in the separate car reserved for white passengers. He informed the conductor that he was seven-eighths white, according to the Comite's plan. When he was asked to move, he refused.

Plessy was arrested and convicted by a New Orleans court of violating Louisiana's Separate Car Act. With the help of the Comite, he filed a civil rights complaint against the presiding judge, John H. Ferguson, arguing that the law was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Post-Civil War Reconstruction

After the Civil War, efforts began in southern states and nationwide to pass laws that would protect the rights of African Americans. This was known as "Reconstruction." It was a turbulent time, where 4 million people who were previously enslaved were suddenly integrating into American society. Confederate states were reluctantly coming back into the fold, and it seemed as if the United States were going to be "united" once again.

After the Reconstruction Act was passed in 1867, African Americans were elected to government positions - including the United States Congress. The 14th Amendment followed, which broadened the Constitution's definition of citizenship and granted "equal protection of the laws" to former slaves. In 1870, Congress approved the 15th Amendment, which states that a person's right to vote cannot be denied based on race.

Some states even passed laws banning racial discrimination on public transport and other public facilities. However, a deal made behind closed doors of Congress in 1877 brought an end to those efforts, undoing many years of progress in the arena of civil rights.

The Compromise of 1877

The 1876 Presidential Election hinged on disputed vote counts in three states: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. They also happened to be the only three states that still had Reconstruction-era Republicans controlling the government. At the beginning of 1877, a bipartisan commission in Congress debated whether to proclaim Rutherford B. Hayes (a Republican) the winner of the election. Allies of Hayes met with a few moderate southern Democrats in secret to negotiate an informal agreement known as the Compromise of 1877.

The southern Democrats agreed to let Hayes be president, as long as Republicans withdrew federal troops from the South. This effectively brought an end to the Reconstruction era. States once again began passing laws that disfavored African Americans and other people of color, including segregation.

The Plessy Decision

The Supreme Court's majority opinion held that even though the Constitution's 14th Amendment established absolute equality under the law, it did not guarantee social equality. Given this, the Supreme Court reasoned that because the accommodations provided for both groups of passengers were equal, it didn't matter that they were separate.

"The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either ..."

The majority held that laws that kept different racial populations apart did not violate the 14th Amendment, as long as there were equivalent facilities and services available. This "separate but equal" doctrine was the basis for decades of segregation laws and remained the law of the land for the first half of the 20th century.

In answer to Plessy's argument that separate rail cars were a thinly-veiled way of labeling African Americans as inferior, the majority had this to say:

"If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it."

Essentially, the majority held that if anyone had a problem with the law, it was due to their own hangups - not a Constitutional issue. However, one of the justices didn't see it that way, recognizing that social restrictions could be just as damaging as political ones.

A Single, But Powerful, Dissent

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the only dissenting opinion in the case. A former slave owner, Harlan had previously opposed the emancipation of slaves in the United States. But he changed his position after witnessing atrocities committed by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Harlan argued that the Louisiana law regulated a public highway solely based on race, and therefore violated the latest amendments to the Constitution. Seeing through the "separate but equal" language of the statute, he recognized that the purpose of having separate cars was not so much to keep white people out of railroad cars occupied by black people - but the other way around.

"Our Constitution is color-blind," Harlan wrote, "and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."

According to Justice Harlan, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments "removed the race line from our governmental systems." Unlike the majority, he believed the Louisiana law was "implying inferiority" of African Americans, and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality of the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."

He predicted that the majority's judgment would "prove to be quite as pernicious" as the decision made in Dred Scott v. Sandford - the case that, in many ways, pushed the country toward the Civil War.

Significance of Plessy v. Ferguson

More than 50 years would pass before the Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Decided on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown decided that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore violated the Constitution. It is one of the few cases where the Supreme Court explicitly overrules its own precedent. And even then, the Court did not deem all segregation of public facilities unconstitutional.

In the intervening years between the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and that of Brown v. Board, state and local governments implemented racial segregation laws in communities across the country. And even though those laws no longer exist, their impact remains today.

Despite the fact that Plessy v. Ferguson is no longer good law, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that it never was, the case is a good reminder that the American legal system is capable of change. In the decades just before Plessy, three groundbreaking Amendments had been added to the Constitution. And decades after the Plessy court handed down its decision, new justices were able to set aside the flawed logic of their predecessors.

Read the full decision in FindLaw's Cases & Codes.