During the post–Reconstruction era, southern states passed laws reestablishing white advantages and privilege by reviving pre–Civil War practices requiring blacks and whites to attend separate schools, ride in separate train cars, and sit in separate sections of theaters. Soon after the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was created in 1887, it received complaints from blacks who had purchased first-class train tickets but were forced to ride in less comfortable dirty train cars reserved for blacks only. In response, the ICC ruled that in trains under its jurisdiction, if racial segregation was practiced, then equal-quality cars must be provided for “white” and “colored” races. Louisiana (and other southern states) then passed laws stipulating that “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations.… No person or persons shall be admitted to occupy seats in coaches other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to.”
In a U.S. Supreme Court case of tremendous importance, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Homer Plessy, a black man, challenged that Louisiana law. He argued that determining where people should sit based solely on their race was an unconstitutional violation of citizens’ rights; for example, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits laws that abridge the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens or deny people equal protection of the laws. The Supreme Court’s decision, however, rejected Plessy’s claim, and, for the next sixty years, its ruling that “separate-but-equal” segregation is permissible and not harmful was the foundation on which racial segregation was legitimated.
Plessy v. Ferguson ’s doctrine of “separate-but-equal” racial segregation rested on three closely related arguments, each of which was later challenged by civil rights proponents. First, the Court argued that the Fourteenth Amendment only guarantees that blacks and whites have equality with regard to political rights (e.g., to vote or hold office) and legal rights (e.g., to serve on juries, to own property), not with regard to social rights or social equality. Second, Plessy v. Ferguson asserted that state governments had the right to permit or require racial separation provided that the segregation laws are “reasonable” and “enacted in good faith for promotion for the public good, and not for the annoyance or oppression of a particular class.” Third, this “separate-but-equal” doctrine contended that enforced separation of the races did not stamp the colored race “with a badge of inferiority.” Instead Plessy v. Ferguson claimed that if the two races are socially unequal, this inequality is the result of “racial instincts” that either put one group lower than the other or cause people to believe they are superior or inferior, and the Court held that altering either of these is beyond the power of legislation or judicial decision-making—that is, that “natural” inequalities and prejudices linked to race can not be overcome by government-required commingling of the two races.
What is evident in Plessy v. Ferguson ’s “separate-but-equal” doctrine is the absence of a serious concern about whether the separate facilities assigned to “white” and “colored” races really were of equal quality. Nowhere in the Court’s decision is there mention of any test to be used to judge whether the separate facilities are in fact equal, nor is there a clear statement directing those in authority to provide equal facilities to both races. In fact, shortly after Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled on whether a board of education in Georgia was required to provide a high school for blacks since they did so for whites. The Court ruled that the school board did not have to do so, and this decision ( Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 1899) became a precedent for providing “separate and unequal” facilities to blacks.
The legacy of “separate but (un)equal” was that white-dominated state and local governments created and institutionalized a gulf or color line in public life separating blacks and whites. W. E. B. Du Bois, in the early 1900s, called this color line “the problem of the 20th century” (Du Bois 1901). Gross inequities were permitted under the guise of “separate but equal.” In health care, hospitals and doctors in the North and South routinely refused to treat blacks in need of medical attention, and black medical students were denied training and internship experience in “white” hospitals. In education, southern states in the 1930s spent for blacks’ education less than one-third what they spent for whites. Residential neighborhoods and housing policies were organized to exclude blacks from the better areas and prevent them from living among whites, for example, by racial zoning ordinances, racially restrictive covenants, discriminatory mortgage lending, and outright refusal to rent apartments or sell homes to blacks. Atlanta blacks comprised one-third of the city’s population but resided on less than 20 percent of its land—the most overcrowded and run-down areas. Residential segregation was not just a southern phenomenon; in the 1940s and 1950s many northern cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, were among the most highly segregated cities (and remained so in the mid-2000s).
Perhaps the most visible consequence of the “separate but (un)equal” color line was the demarcation of “white” and “colored” public spaces in parks, beaches, movie theaters, sports stadiums, restaurants, buses and transit waiting rooms, restrooms, and water fountains. People of color who transgressed the color line by using a facility reserved for whites were frequently arrested, jailed, physically beaten, or killed by the police or by secretive groups of whites who took it upon themselves to guard racial boundaries.
Another consequence of racial segregation imposed by the “separate but (un)equal” doctrine was the development of notable African American communities in most large U.S. cities. As migrating blacks were forced into a few neighborhoods, their growing numbers and initiatives for survival and success expanded many black institutions that would greatly influence local (sometimes national) cultural, social, economic, and political life. Amid squalor and poverty in these African American districts arose successful banks and businesses, vibrant churches, innovative music and arts scenes, active social and labor groups, and organizations devoted to racial solidarity, uplift, and the struggle against racism. In well-known black communities, such as New York’s Harlem, and in less well-known ones, the broadened social-class structure, the accumulation of resources, and development of leadership gradually stimulated a movement that would challenge and defeat state-sponsored racial segregation.
Although the “separate but (un)equal” doctrine originated from whites’ racial prejudices, once institutionalized it nurtured and amplified racial prejudices, mainly in two ways. First, by denying blacks opportunities for good education, jobs, homes, medical care, and social dignity, it forced many into impoverishment and desperation, and many whites interpreted behavioral symptoms associated with this as a sign of black inferiority. Second, isolating blacks from whites prevented the kind of social interaction that can dispel prejudice, that is, equalstatus intergroup cooperation toward common goals, which reveals personal information that disconfirms common negative stereotypes.
In a limited sense the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) decision overturned the “separate but (un)equal” doctrine. It dealt with de jure segregation in public schools, in which governmental agents (school boards) required blacks and whites to attend different schools. The Court ruled this an unconstitutional violation of blacks’ Fourteenth Amendment rights because it “has a detrimental effect upon the colored children” in that it suggests an inferiority among blacks that weakens their motivation to learn and negatively affects their hearts and minds, thereby depriving them of equal educational opportunity. Because of delaying tactics by many state and local officials, little racial integration occurred in schools for ten years. In truth, the Brown decision was the tip of the iceberg that punctured the “separate but (un)equal” doctrine. It was based on prior precedent-setting lawsuits by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that challenged racial segregation and on the dissemination of psychological and sociological research on the negative effects of racial segregation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, victory against segregation beyond the schools was the product of social activism and pressure created by public protests, boycotts, and disruptions of the status quo (including the Montgomery bus boycott, sit-ins, and riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) that forced many authorities to see that they had more to lose than to gain in preserving state-sanctioned racial segregation.
SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education , 1954 ; Discrimination; Discrimination, Racial; Jim Crow; Public Rights; Segregation; Segregation, School; Supreme Court, U.S.; White Supremacy
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