Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

Plessy was a U.S. Supreme Court case declaring state laws mandating ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities based on race as constitutionally permissible. This case regarding civil rights and liberties imposed a narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as sanctioned segregation laws passed by state governments in the era of ‘‘Jim Crow.’’

Along with other southern states, Louisiana segregated railroad cars by mandating ‘‘equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.’’ The law was subsequently challenged by Plessy; even though he appeared white, he was classified as ‘‘colored’’ under Louisiana state law because he was oneeighth black. After being arrested for not moving to the colored car in a prearranged encounter with railroad officials, Plessy argued that his constitutional rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments were violated by the Louisiana law. Specifically, Plessy argued that the state law reimposed a form of slavery on him, thus violating the Thirteenth Amendment, and that he was denied the ‘‘equal protection of the laws’’ as mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment. State courts rejected his arguments, and Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Upon appeal, a majority of the justices used a narrow interpretation of both Civil War amendments to allow the Louisiana law to stand. In rejecting the arguments concerning the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on slavery, Justice Brown held that all distinctions based on race were not necessarily acts of slavery, thus dismissing the claim of Thirteenth Amendment violations. Justice Brown also rejected the notion that the ‘‘equal but separate’’ law violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The justice declared that ‘‘in the nature of things [the Fourteenth Amendment] could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races unsatisfactory to either.’’ This judicial opinion rested upon an 1847 case involving the segregation of blacks from Boston schools. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the concept that state governments could impose requirements mandating separate facilities based on race because laws were ‘‘powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences.’’

In his dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan sought to uphold the protection of the civil rights for blacks against state discrimination and chastised his brethren on the Court for consenting to racial discrimination in the guise of ‘‘separate but equal.’’ Harlan wrote that the U.S. Constitution was ‘‘color blind’’ by the fact that the Civil War amendments removed all distinctions based on race. Citing the case that heralded the Civil War, Harlan believed that the Plessy decision would be equal to the Dred Scott decision (19 How., 60 U.S., 393, 1857).

The Plessy decision enshrined the concept of ‘‘separate but equal’’ in racial terms within American law. This decision would be used in later cases and statutes to deny blacks their constitutional and legal rights within many venues of American society. From birth in a hospital through education to the cemetery, Jim Crow laws were written to regulate and discriminate between the races. In other U.S. Supreme Court cases, the use of Plessy’s doctrine upheld racial classification and separation in educational settings (Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Ed (GA), 175 U.S. 528, 1899; Gong Lum v. Rice, 274 U.S. 78, 1927).

As one scholar has noted, however, blacks used Plessy to fight against segregated schooling, particularly by challenging states to uphold the ‘‘equal’’ part of ‘‘separate but equal.’’ Through organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, blacks would challenge Plessy’s ‘‘separate but equal’’ finding through the first half of the twentieth century. Again, the focus on educational opportunities would serve as the foundation for these challenges, starting with graduate education and law schools (Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 1938; Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 1950; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 816, 1950). Ultimately, these challenges culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration, in Brown vs. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483, 1954), that ‘‘in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’’ and thus the rejection of the Plessy decision.

J. MICHAEL BITZER

References and Further Reading

  • Fireside, Harvey. Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision That Legalized Racism. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004.
  • Lofgren, Charles A. The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Medley, Keith Weldon. We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
  • Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Ed, (GA) 175 U.S. 528 (1899)
  • Gong Lum v. Rice, 274 U.S. 78 (1927)
  • McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 816 (1950)
  • Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938)
  • Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)

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