Plessy v. Ferguson , a very important case of 1896 in which the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legality of racial segregation. At the time of the ruling, segregation between blacks and whites already existed in most schools, restaurants, and other public facilities in the American South. In the Plessy decision, the Supreme Court ruled that such segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This amendment provides equal protection of the law to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race. The court ruled in Plessy that racial segregation was legal as long as the separate facilities for blacks and whites were “equal.” This “separate but equal” doctrine, as it came to be known, was only partially implemented after the decision. Railroad cars, schools, and other public facilities in the South were made separate, but they were rarely made equal.
Immediately after the American Civil War ended in April 1865 the Southern states began to segregate blacks from whites in schools and other public facilities. Reconstruction, a period of rebuilding in the American South that lasted from the end of 1865 to 1877, put a temporary stop to these policies in some places. Blacks had won enough political power in the South during Reconstruction to prevent the passage of legislation designed to deny them access to public facilities. Also, after the Civil War the national government remained committed to upholding at least some degree of racial fairness. However, even during Reconstruction, most Southern schools were segregated and blacks were often forced to use inadequate public facilities.
After 1877 whites gained greater political control and eventually total political dominance of the South, and the national government did little to stop the worsening plight of Southern blacks. As a result, segregation gradually spread. By the mid-1890s railroad cars and other forms of public transportation had become segregated in a number of southern states.
The Plessy case grew out of a careful strategy to test the legality of a Louisiana law passed in 1890 that required railroads to maintain separate train cars for blacks and whites. In September 1891 a group of blacks in New Orleans, Louisiana, formed the Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law and raised $3000 to mount a formal challenge to segregation in Louisiana. Albion Tourgee, then the nation’s best-known white advocate of black legal rights, agreed to argue the case free of charge.
In June 1892 Homer A. Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and sat in the car designated for whites only. Plessy was of mixed African and European ancestry, and he looked white. Because the Citizens Committee wanted to challenge the segregation law in court, it alerted railroad officials that Plessy would be sitting in the whites only car, even though he was partly of African descent. Plessy was arrested and brought to court for arraignment before Judge John H. Ferguson of the U.S. District Court in Louisiana. Plessy then attempted to halt the trial by suing Ferguson on the grounds that the segregation law was unconstitutional.
In 1896 Plessy’s challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Tourgee argued that segregation violated the 13th Amendment’s ban of involuntary slavery and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. Tourgee asserted that these amendments, along with the Declaration of Independence, protected all Americans from discrimination. He told the court that the 14th Amendment gave constitutional power to the Declaration of Independence, which he described as “the all-embracing formula of personal rights on which our government is based.” Joining Tourgee in these arguments was Samuel F. Phillips, a former Solicitor General of the United States, who in 1883 had unsuccessfully argued the Civil Rights Cases, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had severely curtailed the power of Congress to protect the rights of blacks in the South.
The court rejected Tourgee’s arguments by a vote of 7 to 1. Speaking for the court, Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown declared that the 14th Amendment was adopted “to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law,” but he argued the amendment “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.” Ignoring the reality of segregation in the South, Justice Brown denied Tourgee’s argument that “the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” Brown asserted that segregation was not discriminatory because whites were also segregated from blacks. Thus, if segregation made blacks feel inferior, “it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” Brown stated: Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races were equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race were inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.
The decision in the Plessy case granted constitutional support to the “separate but equal” doctrine. As long as segregated facilities were equal they were permissible. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a bitter dissent to the court’s opinion. A former slaveholder, Harlan acknowledged that the white race was “the dominant race in this country.” But Harlan declared: 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 his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.
By the time the court decided Plessy the South was well on its way to creating a thoroughly segregated society. The Plessy ruling merely accelerated the process and provided it with legal sanction. Within a few years almost every institution or facility in the South was segregated. In addition to schools, streetcars, railroads, hotels, and restaurants, southern states segregated sports arenas, telephone booths, and elevators. In some states blacks and whites could not fish on the same lakes, play baseball together, or shoot pool at the same establishment.
Most American blacks, and some whites, condemned the Plessy decision and its repercussions. Some of this opposition led to the creation in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization dedicated to fighting racial segregation. Most whites in the North ignored the plight of Southern blacks in the wake of Plessy, while most Southern whites used the decision to justify racial discrimination.
Nearly 60 years passed before the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka , that the “separate but equal” doctrine had no place in public education. Two years later, in Gayle v. Browder , the Supreme Court struck down segregation in public transportation—the same kind of segregation upheld in Plessy. By then the South had built a social and legal system deeply rooted in racial segregation. It took numerous lawsuits, much federal legislation, and a concerted effort of civil rights protesters in the 1950s and 1960s to finally dismantle the system of segregation upheld by the Plessy ruling.