Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is the Supreme Court case, since overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which upheld the constitutionality of “separate, but equal facilities” based on race.
Louisiana had adopted a law in 1890 that required railroad companies to provide racially segregated accommodations. In 1892, the state of Louisiana prosecuted Homer Plessy, a man who was 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Black, for refusing to leave a passenger car designated for whites.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Brown, upheld the Louisiana law, reasoning that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was designated to enforce the political equality of blacks and whites but not intended to abolish social inequality. Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment did not encompass segregation, and states could permissibly exercise their police power to enforce segregation as a matter of public policy. The Court also held that the state statute itself was not based on an assumption of black inferiority, nor did it stigmatize blacks with second-class status; rather, “the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Justice Harlan’s sole dissent argued that the law implicated civil, not just political, equality. He noted that the law was intended not to exclude whites from railroad cars carrying blacks, but to exclude blacks from railroad cars carrying whites. “In view of the Constitution, in the eyes 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….”
Plessy v. Ferguson was case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on May, 18, 1896 that ruled that "separate, but equal" facilities were constitutional. This case was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Why it matters: The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the principle of separate but equal public facilities was constitutional because segregation did not imply inferiority or inequality. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion and argued that the Fourteenth Amendment intended to establish equality of citizenship before the law, but that segregation did not create inequality of citizenship. To read more about the impact of Plessy v. Ferguson click here.
Homer Plessy on June 7, 1892, bought a first-class ticket to Covington Louisiana at the Press Street Depot in New Orleans Louisiana. While he was seated on the train, the conductor asked Plessy his race. Plessy said that he was "colored," according to the opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. The conductor asked Plessy to move to the appropriate car and Plessy refused to do so. Instead, Plessy told the conductor that he was an American citizen, that he had paid for a first-class ticket, and that he intended to ride in the car for which he had purchased the ticket. The conductor stopped the train and Plessy was arrested. He spent the night in jail and appeared in criminal court the next day for violating Louisiana's Separate Car Act.
The Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, an association to which Plessy belonged, posted $500 for his bond. Plessy was arraigned in October 1892, and his attorneys entered a plea claiming that the act was unconstitutional because it violated the Thirteenth Amendment. They also claimed that the matter of race was too complicated for the legislature to legislate about and too complicated for a train conductor to enforce.
Plessy argued that racial segregation of train cars violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. He argued that the Louisiana Separate Car Act violated the equal protection clause. He also argued that the train cars were not equal because the car reserved for whites only was better maintained than the car reserved for African Americans.
Oral argument was held on April 13, 1896. The case was decided on May 18, 1896.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the Louisiana Separate Car Act was constitutional.
Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Melville Weston Fuller, Stephen Johnson Field, Horace Gray, Rufus Wheeler Peckham, George Shiras, and Edward Douglass White.
Justice John Harlan I wrote a dissenting opinion.
Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion for the 7-1 Supreme Court and ruled that The Separate Car Act was constitutional.
Justice Brown argued that the Separate Car Act did not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment because it did not reestablish slavery or "constitute a badge of servitude." Justice Brown argued that the Thirteenth Amendment had no application in this case because it outlawed slavery but did not create equal social rights.
Justice Brown ruled that the Separate Car Act also did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. He cited the Supreme Court's ruling in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) which held that racial discrimination in public conveyances, places of public amusement, and inns was unconstitutional. He argued that the precedent set by the Civil Rights Cases did not apply to this case because in those cases the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to secure legal equality, rather than social equality, for African Americans and white citizens.
Justice John Harlan I wrote a dissenting opinion and argued that the majority ignored the purpose of the Separate Car Act which was not to create equal standards but rather to create inferior accommodations for African American citizens. Justice Harlan argued that the act presupposed the inferiority of African Americans and that the law did not treat the two races as equal citizens. Justice Harlan argued that the act attempted to interfere with the personal liberty, freedom, and movement of African Americans on the arbitrary basis of race. He wrote, "Our Constitution is color-blind" and argued that the act was unconstitutional.
Segregation was enforced for sixty-four years under the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that "separate, but equal" public schools were unconstitutional.