Plessy v. Ferguson
An 1896 decision by the Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, upheld the constitutionality of an 1890 Louisiana statute requiring white and "colored" persons to be furnished "separate but equal" accommodations on railway passenger cars.
The plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eights Caucasian and one-eighth African, paid for a first-class seat on a Louisiana railroad. He took a seat in the coach that was reserved for white passengers, but the conductor told him to leave the "white" car and go to the "colored" coach under threat of being expelled from the train and arrested. When Plessy refused, he was ejected from the train and imprisoned. He was prosecuted for violating the law, which he asserted was unconstitutional and violated the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished SLAVERY, and the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution, which prohibited certain restrictive legislative acts by the states.
The Supreme Court agreed to decide the constitutionality of the law. It reasoned that, although the Thirteenth Amendment intended to abolish slavery, it was insufficient to protect the "colored" people from certain harsh state laws that treated them unequally. The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted "to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law … (but) it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color or to enforce social as distinguished from political equality.…"The Court decided that the law establishing separate but equal public accommodations and facilities was a reasonable exercise of the POLICE POWER of a state to promote the public good. "If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of voluntary consent of the individuals."
Only Justice JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN dissented, on the ground that such a law "interferes with the personal freedom of citizens" under the
guise of legal equality. He maintained that the constitutional guarantees in this country were to be color-blind.
In 1954, the Supreme Court overruled this decision and recognized that separate but equal educational facilities were inherently unequal in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). Subsequent Supreme Court decisions prohibited racial SEGREGATION in any public facilities and accommodations.
Anderson, Wayne. 2004. Plessy v. Ferguson: Legalizing Segregation. New York: Rosen.
Medley, Keith Weldon. 2003. We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna, La.: Pelican.
Postema, Gerald J., ed. 1997. Racism and the Law: The Legacy and Lessons of Plessy. Boston: Kluwer Academic.
Thomas, Brook, ed. 1997. Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford.