Plessy v. Ferguson 1896

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Plessy v. Ferguson 1896

Petitioner: Homer A. Plessy

Respondent: J. H. Ferguson, New Orleans Criminal District Court Judge

Petitioner's Claim: That Louisiana's law requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railway cars violated Plessy's right to equal protection under the law.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: F. D. McKenney, S. F. Phillips

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: M. J. Cunningham, Louisiana Attorney General

Justices for the Court: Henry B. Brown, Stephen J. Field, Melville W. Fuller, Horace Gray, Rufus W. Peckham, George Shiras, Jr., Edward Douglas White

Justices Dissenting: John Marshall Harlan I (David Josiah Brewer did not participate)

Date of Decision: May 18, 1896

Decision: Ruled in favor of Ferguson by finding that Louisiana's law providing for "separate but equal" treatment for blacks and whites was constitutionally valid.

Significance: The decision was a major setback for minorities seeking equality in the United States. The ruling further paved the way for numerous state laws throughout the country making segregation which resulted in discrimination legal in almost all parts of daily life. The "separate but equal" standard lasted until the 1950s when the Supreme Court finally reversed this decision.

In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying: "As a race . . . the [blacks] are altogether inferior to the whites . . . [and] can never rise to a very high place. . . I do not believe that the average Negro . . . is as yet in any way fit to take care of himself and others. . . If he were . . . there would be no Negro race problems." (from In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro [1965], edited by Milton Meltzer.

Such were the misguided perceptions of many white Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite efforts by Congress and the federal government in the wake of the American Civil War (1861–65) to abolish slavery and extend the same basic civil rights enjoyed by white Americans to black Americans, prejudice against blacks remained strong. The U.S. Supreme Court consistently delivered decisions greatly limiting how much the government could do to protect the rights of blacks. Southern states increasingly passed laws, known as Jim Crow laws, keeping whites and blacks separated. State-ordered segregation [keeping races from mixing] continued a way of life in the South well established from earlier slavery days.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law known as the Separate Car Law requiring railroads to provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races." The law barred anyone from sitting in a railway car not designated for their own race. The law was not only poorly received by Louisiana's black population, but also by the railway companies because of the extra expense needed to provide separate cars.

Homer Adolph Plessy

As soon as the Separate Car Law was passed, black leaders in Louisiana became determined to challenge the law. They formed a Citizen's Committee to develop a strategy to test its constitutionality. Acting on their behalf, Homer A. Plessy, a shoemaker, bought a first class ticket on June 7, 1892 on the East Louisiana Railroad to ride from New Orleans to his home in Covington, Louisiana. Plessy, only one-eighth black, had light colored features and mostly appeared white. Under Louisiana law he was still considered black. When questioned by a railway conductor after finding a seat in the whites-only railroad car, he responded that he was colored. The conductor ordered Plessy to the colored-only car. Refusing to move, Plessy was arrested by Detective Chris Cain, removed from the train, and taken to the New Orleans city jail.

A Badge of Inferiority

Plessy and the Citizen's Committee immediately filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Orleans Parish claiming the Louisiana law denied him "equal protection of the laws" as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment states, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [lessen] the privileges . . . of citizens of the United States . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which a government has authority] the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection of the laws means persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated equally by the laws. In addition, Plessy charged the restrictions, in a sense, reintroduced slavery by denying equality. Thus, the law also violated the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on slavery. Plessy argued that the state law "stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority."

Judge John H. Ferguson, relying on several legal precedents (principles of former decisions), found Plessy guilty and sentenced him to either pay a twenty-five dollar fine or spend twenty days in jail. Plessy appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court which upheld the conviction. Plessy next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a court order forbidding Ferguson from carrying out the conviction. The Court accepted the case, but due to the large number of cases waiting to be decided by the Court, almost four years passed before it was heard.

Separate But Equal

Finally, on April 13, 1896 Plessy argued his case in Court. The state responded that the Louisiana law merely made a distinction between blacks and whites, but did not actually treat one as inferior to the other. Less than a month later, on May 18, the Court issued its 7-1 decision in accepting the state's arguments. Justice Henry B. Brown, delivering the Court's decision, wrote,

A statute [law] which implies [expresses] merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races—a distinction which is found in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color—has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.

The Court reaffirmed Plessy's conviction by finding that the Louisiana's law did not violate either the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments. Brown stated that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social . . . equality." Segregation did not violate equal protection, according to Brown. The state had properly used its police powers in a "reasonable" way to promote the public good by keeping peace between the races. As Brown commented, "If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of voluntary consent of the individuals." With that finding, Brown gave Supreme Court approval to the "separate but equal" concept.

A Color-Blind Constitution

In a historically important and emotional dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan, a native Kentuckian and former slaveholder, boldly wrote,

Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. . . In my opinion, the judgement this rendered will, in time, prove to be . . . [harmful]. . . The present decision . . . will not only stimulate aggressions . . . brutal and irritating, on the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments [laws], to defeat the beneficent [valuable] purposes . . . which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent [Thirteenth and Fourteenth] amendments of the Constitution.

Agreeing with Plessy's arguments, Harlan charged that segregation created a "badge of servitude" likening it to slavery.

Separate And Unequal

The ruling, that gave constitutional approval to racial segregation, presented a major setback to black Americans and others seeking equality between the races. It would greatly influence social customs in the United States for most of the next six decades. The Court did not address that separate facilities would deny blacks access to the same quality of accommodations as whites. Rarely would separate facilities be as good, and because of the lengthy history of discrimination in America, blacks held little political power to make sure separate facilities would become equal in quality.


S upreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the Court opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) essentially condemning black Americans to extensive racial discrimination for at least the next sixty years. Born in South Lee, Massachusetts in 1836, Brown was the son of a prosperous New England businessman. He was a graduate of Yale University with some limited training in law at Yale and Harvard. After moving to Michigan, Brown married the daughter of a wealthy Detroit lumber trader and, consequently, became independently wealthy. Brown established a successful law practice and taught law. In 1875 he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and in 1890 was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many considered Brown to be wise and fair during his time and warmly amiable in character. However, Brown largely opposed government regulation of business and recognition of individual civil rights, focusing instead on protecting property rights and free enterprise. Brown was a social elitist [higher social standing than most] who held many of the prejudices prominent during his time toward blacks, women, Jews, and immigrants. He did not believe laws should require changes in social custom when strong public sentiments were against it. Though he was relatively popular at the time, his decision in Plessy upholding state-required segregation later greatly affected his reputation. Due to failing eyesight, Brown retired from the Court in 1906 and later died in New York City in 1913 at the age of seventy-seven.

The phrase "separate but equal" became symbolic of forced racial segregation in the nation invading almost every aspect of American society, including restaurants, railroads, streetcars, waiting rooms, parks, cemeteries, churches, hospitals, prisons, elevators, theaters, schools, public restrooms, water fountains, and even public telephones. Not until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education did the Court finally act to overturn the "separate but equal" doctrine, three generations after the fateful Plessy decision.

Suggestions for further reading

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

Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Brown. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Lofgren, Charles A. The Plessy case: a legal-historical interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Olsen, Otto H. The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1864–1896. New York: Humanities Press 1967.