Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Homer Plessy

After the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s, southern states began to pass Jim Crow laws to continue to deny African-Americans their Constitutional rights.  One example was Louisiana’s passage of Act 111 in 1890.  This Louisiana state law required segregated passenger cars, insisting that the facilities were equal.

Many groups of citizens in New Orleans organized to protest this law, including Homer Plessy.  Plessy was one-eighth black, which classified him as “colored” by Louisiana state law, although he appeared to be white.  On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first class ticket and boarded a whites-only car on the East Louisiana Railroad.  Plessy was told to moved to the “colored” car, but refused.  He was subsequently arrested.

His first trial was heard in Louisiana State Court.  His lawyers argued that Plessy’s Constitutional rights–specifically from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments–were violated by the Louisiana state law he was being charged with violating.  This argument was rejected and he convicted by Judge John Howard Ferguson anyway, who said that the state had the right to regulate railroads while they operated within their boundaries.

Plessy’s legal team appealed the case to the Louisiana state Supreme Court, who unsurprisingly upheld the conviction.  Challenges to Jim Crow law were stymied in local and state courts in the South.  The case needed to make it to the federal level to have a chance. The next step was to take the case to the United States Supreme Court in 1896.

In a seven to one decision, the Court ruled in favor of Judge Ferguson and the Louisiana state law.  The Court said that the segregation of races did not imply inferiority and did not recognize any difference between the facilities.  As such, the ruling became famous for its dictum of “separate, but equal.”  Segregation was deemed legal, so long as there was no difference in the quality of the facilities in question, whether they be hospitals, schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, public restrooms, etc.  In reality, there were stark differences between white and “colored” facilities, but the enforcement of this would prove to be almost impossible.

The case served as a federal stamp of approval for segregation under the fallacy that African-Americans had access to facilities equal to that whites enjoyed.  The case would later be overturned by another landmark case, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

BEFORE:  In Re Debs (1895)

AFTER:  Northern Securities v. United States (1904)

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