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Plessy v. Ferguson

At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. Library of Congress

When the Louisiana legislature in 1890 passed the Separate Car Act, which mandated the racial segregation of railroad passengers, a group of black activists set out to challenge the law. They chose Homer Plessy to defy the segregationists in an act of civil disobedience.

Plan Takes Shape
In response to the Separate Car Act and increasing violence against people of color in the South, a group made up mostly of "Creoles of color" convened on September 1, 1891, at the offices of The Crusader, a black weekly in New Orleans. The paper's chief editorial contributor, Rodolphe Desdunes, contended that the "law is unconstitutional. It is like a slap in the face of every member of the black race." The group, called the Citizens Committee, devised a test case to prove the unconstitutionality of the law.

Arrest and Trial
On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded the "white" car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Born on March 17, 1863, Plessy was a shoemaker in New Orleans who was considered seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. When on the railway car he identified himself as black (his light complexion made his race "not discernible", he said), he was arrested, just as the Citizens Committee had planned. Plessy was found guilty in November of violating the act, and the Citizens Committee appealed. The Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the decision, and the case eventually moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Plessy's side arguing that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments.

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that denied Plessy's challenge to the law. "The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law," wrote Justice Henry Billings Brown, "but in the nature of things it 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 upon terms unsatisfactory to either." Only one justice dissented, John Harlan, who contended that the decision "will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution."

"Notwithstanding this decision," wrote the members of the Citizens Committee, which would soon disband, "we, as freemen, still believe that we were right." Harlan was right too, as the Plessy decision ushered in an era during which black people were denied the vote and segregated in substandard accommodations, backed by the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court. That would not change until 1954, when the Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" denied the constitutional rights of black people, something clear to a group of New Orleans residents many years before.

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