U.S. Supreme Court

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U.S. Supreme Court

Excerpt from Plessy v. Ferguson trial of 1896
Opinions written by U.S. Supreme Court justices Henry Billings Brown (majority) and John Marshall Harlan (dissent) on May 18, 1896; available at InfoUSA (Web site)

"Our Constitution is color-blind … "
—U.S. Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan

In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby freeing all African American slaves. That freedom was guaranteed when the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery a crime and gave the federal government the authority to uphold freedom by law. The government took the law one step further in 1868 when it added the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Under this amendment, all persons born in the United States, including those who had once been enslaved, were considered citizens of the country. This citizenship gave everyone equal protection under the law. It would be another two years before the Fifteenth Amendment granted African American men the right to vote.

Despite the laws guaranteeing equality among all citizens, the reality of life for most African Americans during the late nineteenth century was a far cry from one of equality. African American men who dared to cast their vote in any elections ran the risk of being lynched (hanged) and tortured, especially in the South. White Southerners hated the fact that the race they once enslaved was now considered, by law, to be equal to themselves. Southern states began passing laws that revoked the civil rights granted to African Americans under the U.S. Constitution. These laws varied from state to state, but all of them had the same results: African Americans as a race were segregated (separated) from whites.

These discriminatory laws were known as Jim Crow laws, named after the character Jump Jim Crow found in minstrel programs (traveling musical shows). As an example of such laws, some states required African Americans to pass a literacy (reading and writing) test in order to vote. If they failed to pass, their right to vote was denied. Since most African Americans had never had formal schooling or much education of any kind, most failed the test. One common literacy test required African Americans to recite the entire U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from memory.

Because Jim Crow laws varied from state to state, it is impossible to say which law was the first to be enacted. Historians generally recognize the 1890 railroad segregation law of Louisiana as the initial Jim Crow legislation. The Separate Car law required African Americans traveling by train to sit in "blacks-only" cars.

Homer Plessy (1863–1925) was an American of African and European heritage. His skin was light enough that he often "passed" for white. In June 1892, Plessy bought a train ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. His first-class ticket gave him the right to sit in a first-class (whites-only) railroad car. When Plessy told the train conductor that he was actually African American, he was told to move to the blacks-only car. He refused and was arrested and thrown into jail in New Orleans.

Plessy's arrest was not accidental. The Citizens' Committee, an organization of influential African American business and community leaders, chose Plessy to break the segregation law on purpose so that the issue could go before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although Plessy claimed the segregation law interfered with his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, state judge John H. Ferguson found him guilty. Plessy appealed, and in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted his case. The committee's strategy had worked.

Things to remember while reading excerpts
from Plessy v. Ferguson:

  • Plessy's lawyer argued that the state's railroad car law violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it denied Plessy equal protection under federal law.
  • Ironically, each of the seven judges who voted against Plessy were from the North. The lone dissenting (disagreeing) vote came from

    The Atlanta Compromise

    On September 18, 1895, educator and reformer Booker T. Washington gave a speech to a mostly white audience at an exposition (fair) in Atlanta, Georgia. Planners of the exposition took a risk by inviting an African American speaker, especially one of such importance as Washington, whose Tuskegee Institute was the first normal school (training for teachers) for African Americans.

    Ultimately, planners decided that having an African American speaker would work in their favor by proving how much progress Southern African Americans had made since the Civil War (1861–65).

    Washington's speech became known as the Atlanta Compromise, and it went down in history as one of the most influential speeches ever given. In it, Washington assured white Americans that his race would be satisfied with the rights awarded them, even if they were not equal to those of whites.

    Toward the end of his speech, Washington said:

    The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of [worry caused by] questions of social equality is the extremest folly [silliness], and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized [ignored]. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

    Washington received a standing ovation for his speech. The reformer called his stance on the race issue "accommodationism," because it made room for the white laws without ever admitting to any inferiority. The speech also called upon whites to take responsibility for improving social and economic relations between African Americans and whites. Simplified, the Atlanta Compromise called for shared responsibility. Within moments of the close of the speech, Washington's words were telegraphed to every major newspaper throughout the nation.

    Washington's accommodationist stance had its critics. The most outspoken of them was W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), the Gilded Age's leading African American scholar. Although he initially accepted Washington's perspective, he eventually considered it to be an acceptance of the submission of African Americans by the white race.

    John Harlan (1833–1911), a white Southerner and former slave owner.
  • Not all African Americans were angry about their second-class citizenship. Prominent African American Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) publicly encouraged his race to accept and make the best of what they were given (see box).

Excerpt from Justice Henry Billings Brown's majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff 's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The argument necessarily assumes that if, as has been more than once the case, and is not unlikely to be so again, the colored race should become the dominant power in the state legislature, and should enact a law in precisely similar terms, it would thereby relegate the white race to an inferior position. We imagine that the white race, at least, would not acquiesce in this assumption. The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other's merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.

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 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 upon the same plane.

Excerpt from Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson:

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. 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 guarantied [sic] by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. Iallude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the state and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race. It is scarcely just to say that a colored citizen should not object to occupying a public coach assigned to his own race. He does not object, nor, perhaps, would he object to separate coaches for his race if his rights under the law were recognized. But he does object, and he ought never to cease objecting, that citizens of the white and black races can be adjudged criminals because they sit, or claim the right to sit, in the same public coach on a public highway. The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.

I am of opinion that the state of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several states of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law, would, it is true, have disappeared from our country; but there would remain a power in the states, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom, to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race, and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the 'People of the United States,' for whom, and by whom through representatives, our government is administered.

For the reason stated, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.

What happened next …

Plessy was given the choice to pay a $25 fine or spend time in jail. In January 1897, he pled guilty and paid the fine. Life went on as normal for Homer Plessy.

The case itself had more far-reaching effect, as it served as the legal foundation for the doctrine that became known as "separate but equal." As long as African Americans were treated in the same way as their white counterparts, the law saw nothing wrong with keeping the populations separated. For almost sixty years, African Americans were forced to use separate public facilities such as bathrooms, entrances and exits, restaurants, parks, water fountains, buses and train cars, and even neighborhoods.

Nowhere else did the separate-but-equal doctrine have such a major impact as it did in public education. Not only were African Americans forced into segregated schools, they were severely underfunded. Because white voters controlled local and state governments, little money was set aside for African American pupils in comparison with that spent on their white peers. For example, in one Mississippi county in 1900, the school district spent $22.25 on each white pupil, but only $2 on each African American child.

In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed. This organization brought people of all races together to seek justice and equality for African Americans. The NAACP spent its first two decades fighting various Jim Crow laws with some success. But it was 1935 before the association took serious action against segregation in education.

In 1939, a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) became head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall got experience in the courtroom by successfully trying a number of important cases involving segregation. These cases helped set the stage for the most important federal case in the history of equality in education.

In the early 1950s, Linda Brown (1942–), a third-grade girl in Topeka, Kansas, had to walk one mile through a railroad switchyard (where trains switch tracks) to get to her all–African American elementary school. Just seven blocks from Brown's home was an all-white school. When the girl's father, Oliver Brown (1918–1961), tried to enroll her in that school, the principal refused her enrollment. Mr. Brown went to the NAACP and asked for help.

The NAACP eagerly agreed to represent the Brown family, and in 1951 Brown v. Board of Education was tried in the Kansas Supreme Court. The judges acknowledged that segregation had a negative impact on African American children because it encouraged the attitude that they were inferior to white children. However, the court was not ready to overturn the separate-but-equal doctrine and voted in favor of the school board.

The case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, where the judges unanimously struck down the segregation laws upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson. They believed the separate-but-equal doctrine deprived African Americans of the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Although the ruling would not affect other public facilities and services, it declared unconstitutional the permissive and mandatory segregation laws that were in affect in twenty-one states at the time. The success of Marshall and his client was a major step in desegregating schools, though the process of desegregation would take many years.

Did you know …

  • There were two U.S. Supreme Court justices named John Marshall Harlan. The elder justice (1833–1911) cast the lone dissenting vote in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. His grandson (1899–1971) was a Presbyterian minister who served on the Supreme Court from 1955 until 1971.
  • NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall became the first African American justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consider the following …

  • Do you think treating people equally means treating them the same? Why or why not?
  • Educational institutions continue to segregate classes according to gender. What, if any, are the benefits of all-male or all-female education?
  • Plessy v. Ferguson did not have the intended outcome for the Citizen's Committee. Still, it remains a prominent case in American history. How might race relations throughout the nation have differed had Plessy been found not guilty?

For More Information


Aaseng, Nathan. Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate but Equal. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2003.

"Brown v. Board of Education." In West's Encyclopedia of American Law. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Fireside, Harvey. Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate But Equal? Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Greenwood, Janette Thomas. "The New South." In The Gilded Age: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McNeese, Tim. Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: Chelsea House, 2006.

Schraff, Anne E. Booker T. Washington: "Character Is Power." Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2005.


Alridge, Derrick P. "Atlanta Compromise Speech." The New Georgia Encyclopedia.http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2554 (accessed on August 14, 2006).

"Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech." History Matters.http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/39/ (accessed on August 14, 2006).

"Plessy v. Ferguson." Landmark Supreme Court Cases.http://www.landmarkcases.org/plessy/home.html (accessed on August 14, 2006).

Wormser, Richard. "Jim Crow Stories: The Fourteenth Amendment Ratified." PBS: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow Stories.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_14th.html (accessed on August 14, 2006).

Wormser, Richard. "Jim Crow Stories: Plessy v. Ferguson." PBS: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_plessy.html (accessed on August 14, 2006).

Underlying fallacy:
Mistaken reasoning.
Person who starts a lawsuit.
State of being less important.
Class system.
One who explains.
I allude to the Chinese race:
A reference to Chinese immigrants, who were banned from entering the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892.
Considered as.
Lack of liberty.

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