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Photo of an African American man drinking from a segregated water fountain.
The Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in an era of legally sanctioned racial segregation. Above, an African American man drinks from a segregated water fountain.

Reproduction courtesy of the Library of Congress
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

The June 7, 1892 arrest of Homer Plessy was part of a strategy orchestrated by a small civic group of black professionals seeking to overturn the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. Plessy, who was by blood only one-eighth African and who easily "passed" as white, boarded a whites-only compartment on the East Louisiana Railway and, as planned, was arrested shortly thereafter by a private detective. Railroad officials viewed the law -- which mandated that they provide separate accommodations for blacks and whites -- as an expensive and inconvenient burden and cooperated with the citizens' group in arranging to have Plessy safely arrested before leaving the city limits of New Orleans.

The civic group planned to utilize Plessy's light skin color in demonstrating the arbitrariness -- and unconstitutionality -- of the segregation law once his case was prosecuted. Specifically, Plessy's attorney argued that Louisiana's segregation law violated both the Thirteenth Amendment (barring slavery) and the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing all people "equal protection" under the law). Through several appeals, however, the Louisiana courts upheld both Plessy's conviction and the constitutionality of the segregation law, and in 1896 the case reached the Supreme Court.

Writing for a 7-1 majority, Justice Henry Brown accepted Plessy's contention that the "object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law." However, Brown drew a distinction between political equality and social equality: "Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane." Finally, Brown rejected Plessy's claim that assignment to the blacks-only car conferred "a badge of inferiority," stating that this was true only if "the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner and staunchly pro-slavery antebellum politician, issued the Court's sole dissent. In a scathing opinion, Harlan refuted Brown's assertion that the Louisiana law discriminated equally against both blacks and whites. "Everyone knows," he wrote, "that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons."

Harlan sharply disagreed with the majority's assessment that segregation on the railcars did not violate blacks' constitutionally protected right to equal protection of the law. However, although he argued eloquently for a "color-blind" reading of the Constitution, Harlan, like Brown, did not advocate social equality among the races. Rather, his point of departure from the majority opinion was his belief that legally imposed segregation denied political equality. In a key passage of his dissent, Harlan stated: "The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But 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 color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."

Although nowhere in the opinion can the phrase "separate but equal" be found, the Court's ruling in Plessy effectively established the rule that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal" -- a principle that Southern states quickly extended to many other forms of public accommodation, such as public schools, restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. Widely regarded today as one of the Court's worst and most damaging opinions, Plessy stood as legal precedent until the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of ending more than 50 years of legally sanctioned segregation. Although it did not explicitly adopt Harlan's "colorblind" standard in Brown, a unanimous Court rejected the logic of the Plessy majority. Writing for the Court in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."



AUTHOR'S BIO
Toni Konkoly is a production assistant at Thirteen/WNET.

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