Plessy v. Ferguson is a landmark United States
Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality
of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of
“separate but equal”. The decision was handed down by a vote of
7 to 1 with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent
written by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Louisiana Justice Edward Douglass White was one of the
majority: he was a member of the New Orleans Pickwick Club and the Crescent City White
League, the latter a paramilitary organization that had supported white supremacy with violence
through the 1870s to suppress black voting and regain political power by white Democrats.
Previous “Separate but equal” remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its repudiation
in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens, which had brought the
suit and had arranged for Homer Plessy’s arrest in an act of civil disobedience in order to
challenge Louisiana’s segregation law, stated, “We, as freemen, still believe that we were
right and our cause is sacred.” Background In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law
that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including
separate railway cars. Concerned, a group of prominent black, creole, and white New
Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens dedicated to repeal the law. They eventually
persuaded Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, to participate in an orchestrated test case.
Plessy was born a free man and was an “octoroon”. However, under Louisiana law, he was classified
as black, and thus required to sit in the “colored” car.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket at the Press Street Depot and boarded
a “whites only” car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound
for Covington, Louisiana. The railroad company, which opposed the law on the grounds that
it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy’s racial
lineage, and the intent to challenge the law. Additionally, the committee hired a private
detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure he was charged for violating the
Separate Car Act, as opposed to a vagrancy or some other offense. After Plessy took a
seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it, and sit instead in the
blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately by the detective. As planned,
the train was stopped, and Plessy was taken off the train at Press and Royal streets.
Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish. In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State
of Louisiana, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the state law which required East Louisiana
Railroad to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth
amendments of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal treatment undedr
the lawHowever, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana
had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within state boundaries.
Plessy was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine. Plessy immediately sought a writ
of prohibition. The Committee of Citizens took Plessy’s appeal
to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state
Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson’s ruling. Undaunted, the Committee appealed to the United
States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy’s behalf. One was
signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips
and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the US Supreme
Court on April 13, 1896. Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf
of Plessy. Tourgée built his case upon violations of
Plessy’s rights under the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment,
which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and the equal protection
of those rights, against the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process
of law. Tourgée argued that the reputation of being a black man was “property”, which,
by the law, implied the inferiority of African Americans as compared to whites.
Decision and dissent In a 7 to 1 decision handed down on May 18,
1896, the Court rejected Plessy’s arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing
no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court
rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of
the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a
matter of public policy. When summarizing, Justice Brown declared,
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption
that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.
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 upon it.”
While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only
railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities,
such as: public toilets, cafés, and public schools, where the facilities designated for
blacks were consistently of lesser quality than those for whites.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, who decried the excesses of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a
scathing dissent in which he predicted the court’s decision would become as infamous
as that of Dred Scott v. Sandford Following is part of Justice Harlan’s dissent, asserting,
“The law regards man as man”: [I]n view of the constitution, in the eye
of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There
is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among
citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest
is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of
his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme
law of the land are involved. Some commentators, such as Gabriel J. Chin
and Eric Maltz, have viewed Harlan’s Plessy dissent in a more critical light, and suggested
it be viewed in context with his other decisions. Maltz has argued that “modern commentators
have often overstated Harlan’s distaste for race-based classifications,” pointing to other
aspects of decisions in which Harlan was involved. Both point to a passage of Harlan’s Plessy
dissent as particularly troubling: “There is a race so different from our own that we
do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging
to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the
Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger
coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana,
many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union”, he wrote.
New Orleans historian Keith Weldon Medley, author of We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson,
The Fight Against Legal Segregation, said the words in Justice Harlan’s “Great Dissent”
were taken from papers filed with the court by “The Citizen’s Committee”.
The case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of separate but equal, the
idea that segregation based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal
quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide blacks with genuinely equal
facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated
races but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality. In January 1897, Homer Plessy
pleaded guilty to the violation and paid the fine.
Influence Plessy legitimized the state laws establishing
racial segregation in the South and provided an impetus for further segregation laws. Legislative
achievements won during the Reconstruction Era were erased through means of the “separate
but equal” doctrine. The doctrine had been strengthened also by an 1875 Supreme Court
decision that limited the federal government’s ability to intervene in state affairs, guaranteeing
only Congress the power “to restrain states from acts of racial discrimination and segregation”.
The ruling basically granted states legislative immunity when dealing with questions of race,
guaranteeing the state’s right to implement racially separate institutions, requiring
them only to be “equal”. The prospect of greater state influence in
matters of race worried numerous advocates of civil equality, including Supreme Court
Justice John Harlan who wrote in his dissent of the Plessy decision, “we shall enter upon
an era of constitutional law, when the rights of freedom and American citizenship cannot
receive from the nation that efficient protection which heretofore was unhesitatingly accorded
to slavery and the rights of the master.” Harlan’s concerns about the entrenchment on
the 14th Amendment would prove well founded; states proceeded to institute segregation-based
laws that became known as the Jim Crow system. In addition, from 1890 to 1908, Southern states
passed new or amended constitutions including provisions that effectively disfranchised
blacks and thousands of poor whites. The effect of the Plessy ruling was immediate;
there were already significant differences in funding for the segregated school system,
which continued into the 20th century; states consistently underfunded black schools, providing
them with substandard buildings, textbooks, and supplies. States which had successfully
integrated elements of their society abruptly adopted oppressive legislation that erased
reconstruction era efforts. The principles of Plessy v. Ferguson were reaffirmed in Lum
v. Rice, which upheld the right of a Mississippi public school for white children to exclude
a Chinese American girl. Despite the laws enforcing compulsory education, and the lack
of public schools for Chinese children in Lum’s area, the Supreme Court ruled that she
had the choice to attend a private school. Jim Crow laws and practices spread northward
in response to a second wave of African-American migration from the South to northern and midwestern
cities. Some established de jure segregated educational facilities, separate public institutions
such as hotels and restaurants, separate beaches among other public facilities, and restrictions
on interracial marriage, but in other cases segregation in the North was related to unstated
practices and operated on a de facto basis, although not by law. among numerous other
facets of daily life. The separate facilities and institutions accorded
to the African-American community were consistently inferior to those provided to the White community.
This contradicted the vague declaration of “separate but equal” institutions issued after
the Plessy decision. From 1890 to 1908, state legislatures in the
South disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through rejecting them for voter registration
and voting: making voter registration more difficult by providing more detailed records,
such as proof of land ownership or literacy tests administered by white staff at poll
stations. African-American community leaders, who had achieved brief political success during
the Reconstruction era and even into the 1880s, lost gains made when their voters were excluded
from the political system. Historian Rogers Smith noted on the subject that “lawmakers
frequently admitted, indeed boasted, that such measures as complex registration rules,
literacy and property tests, poll taxes, white primaries, and grandfather clauses were designed
to produce an electorate confined to a white race that declared itself supreme”, notably
rejecting the 14th and 15th Amendments to the American Constitution.
In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation
in public education was unconstitutional. Plessy v. Ferguson was never overturned by
the Supreme Court. But, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited legal segregation and the
Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voter registration
voting. Plessy and Ferguson Foundation
In 2009 Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of actors on both sides of the
1896 Supreme Court case, announced establishing the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education
and Reconciliation. The foundation will work to create new ways to teach the history of
civil rights through film, art, and public programs designed to create understanding
of this historic case and its effect on the American conscience.
Plaque at railyard site Historians gathered with the Plessy and Ferguson
families and a member of the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans on February 12, 2009,
to unveil a historical marker that memorializes the case. “It is no longer Plessy v Ferguson.
It is Plessy and Ferguson”, said Keith Plessy in a Public Broadcasting radio interview.
The marker was placed on the corner of Press and Royal Streets, near the location of the
former railway station where Plessy had boarded his train.
References Further reading
Thomas, Brook. Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
ISBN 978-0-312-14997-0. Chin, Gabriel J.. “The Plessy Myth: Justice
Harlan and the Chinese Cases”. Iowa Law Review 82: 151. SSRN 1121505.
Elliott, Mark. Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality
from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518139-5.
Fireside, Harvey. Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision That
Legalized Racism. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-7867-1293-7.
Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America 219
pages Lofgren, Charles A.. The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical
Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505684-6.
Medley, Keith Weldon. We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna, LA: Pelican. ISBN 1-58980-120-2.
Review Tushnet, Mark. I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions
in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 69–80. ISBN 978-0-8070-0036-6.
External links Text of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 is
available from: Findlaw Justia LII Text of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,
347 U.S. 483 is available from: Findlaw Justia LII Case Brief for Plessy v. Ferguson at Lawnix.com