Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 7. Segment 7
Separate But Equal

In 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passes a bill that says railroads must "provide separate but equal accommodation for the white and colored races" on passenger trains See It Now - Black Expulsion from Train. Six years later, some Louisiana citizens go to the Supreme Court to see what they can do about it. They ask Homer Plessy if he will help. His friends want to show the ridiculousness of the whole idea of racial categorizing. Plessy's great-grandmother is African. Everyone else in his family is white. But, according to racists, anyone with any African blood at all is black. So Homer Plessy is considered black. Plessy sits in the white section of a railroad car all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court makes its judgment—"separate but equal" is acceptable See It Now - Justices of the Supreme Court, 1896. That decision has become famous as one of the worst the Court has ever made. One Supreme Court justice, John Marshall Harlan See It Now - John Marshall Harlan, disagrees with the others. He writes: Hear It Now - John Marshall "In 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 colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens Check The Source - Plessy v. Ferguson: Justice Harlan's Dissent."

It will be almost sixty years before the Supreme Court changes its mind, and Jim Crow is finally kicked off the stage. Until then, he dances and sings like fury. "Separate but equal" becomes the way of the South. Separation is never equal. Fair-thinking people understand that, and many protest, but fighting the haters is never easy. A few years before Plessy became law, the amazing abolitionist and freedom campaigner Frederick Douglass spoke at the Chicago World's Fair: Hear It Now - Frederick Douglass "Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem," he said. "The problem is whether American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution. We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it Check The Source - Frederick Douglass Assesses Emancipation in 1880."




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