• Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that required railways to provide separate accommodations for whites and people of color. Attempting to lay the groundwork for a legal challenge to the law, Homer Adolph Plessy (who was one-eighth black) used the white carriage on such a train and was arrested. The case was eventually heard by the US Supreme Court, where Justice Henry Billings Brown, speaking for the other seven justices in the majority, stated that as long as the separate train accommodations were equal in quality, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not violated. The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, argued that the law amounted to legalized and institutionalized racism.

Summary Overview

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that required railways to provide separate accommodations for whites and people of color. Attempting to lay the groundwork for a legal challenge to the law, Homer Adolph Plessy (who was one-eighth black) used the white carriage on such a train and was arrested. The case was eventually heard by the US Supreme Court, where Justice Henry Billings Brown, speaking for the other seven justices in the majority, stated that as long as the separate train accommodations were equal in quality, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not violated. The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, argued that the law amounted to legalized and institutionalized racism.

Defining Moment

In 1877, Congress withdrew federal troops from the Southern states, effectively bringing to an end the period known as Reconstruction. The era had been a positive one for African Americans; black men were given the power to vote, and African Americans earned the right to attend public schools. Northerners helped redevelop state governments in such a way that equality among blacks and whites could be promoted. However, with the departure of the Reconstruction-era leaders and law enforcement personnel, Southern whites reasserted control and began imposing racial segregation. Leaders imposed poll taxes and other laws and regulations that essentially prevented the poor (meaning most African Americans) from voting. Without the influence of black voters, Southern legislatures were able to pass laws requiring separate facilities for blacks and whites. When such laws were challenged legally, white-dominated courts dismissed the cases.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring railways to provide separate passenger cars for whites and people of color. These cars would be of equal size and quality. However, people of color were not allowed to use cars designated for white people, and white people were prohibited from traveling on coaches assigned to people of color. Louisiana’s new law was not the first of its kind: Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and other states had already passed such measures. Even the US Supreme Court had ruled that segregation laws on common carriers such as trains were legally acceptable. Still, civil rights organizations pursued legal options. Two such groups–Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) and the activist newspaper The Crusader–attempted to challenge Louisiana’s law.

Plessy was African American according to the strict definition in use at the time: He was a white-skinned man of Creole descent, with only one-eighth African American blood. In 1892, he boarded a train in New Orleans, bound for Covington, Louisiana. Sitting down in a white car, he refused to move into the “colored only” car. He was arrested for violating the “separate but equal” law. He and his backers filed an appeal with the local circuit court, but Judge John Howard Ferguson denied the appeal. Plessy’s team proceeded to bring the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court and, finding no support from that body, later brought the case before the US Supreme Court. On May 18, 1896, the US Supreme Court issued its decision, with eight justices upholding Ferguson’s ruling.

Author Biography

Henry Billings Brown was born on March 2, 1836, in South Lee, Massachusetts. In 1856, he graduated from Yale College. A year later, he began practicing law in Connecticut. In 1875, he was appointed to the US District Court for Eastern Michigan. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to the US Supreme Court. He retired in 1906 and died in 1913.

John Marshall Harlan was born in Boyle County, Kentucky, on June 1, 1833. In 1850, he graduated from Centre College and then studied law at Transylvania University (both in Kentucky). He served as a Union Army officer during the Civil War and ran unsuccessfully for governor of Kentucky in 1875. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him to the US Supreme Court. He held his seat for thirty-four years before his death on October 14, 1911.

Document Analysis

The Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson is broken into two segments. The first is the majority decision, penned by Justice Brown on behalf of seven other justices. The second is the dissent, written by Justice Harlan. Plessy and his supporters argued that the Louisiana law segregating the rails violated citizens’ rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Brown’s comments focus primarily on the merits of the law and the majority’s belief that such a law did not violate either amendment. The law, he says, was passed appropriately by the Louisiana legislature and was presented to that state’s citizenry with clarity. All public railways, the law stated, should provide separate but equal accommodations for people of white and “colored” racial groups, and the agents of the railroad companies were responsible for enforcing these laws. Even the exemptions–an African American nurse tending to white children, for example–were detailed in the law, Brown states, and Plessy knowingly and purposefully defied that law.

The question, Brown continues, is whether the law itself is unconstitutional. He takes great care to state that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments are vital in the post-Reconstruction era. Such amendments promote the equality of all races in the United States. However, continues Brown, the Louisiana law does not place one racial group ahead of another. Rather, he says, it simply separates the two groups. Absent any sort of language that places whites ahead of nonwhites (or vice versa), Brown says, the law is constitutional.

Harlan’s dissent speaks not to the facts but to the clear intent of the law in question. The law is designed to impose “badges of slavery or servitude” upon nonwhites by requiring people of color to identify themselves as separate from whites. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, he says, were designed to prevent such differentiations and instead foster “universal civil freedom.”

Furthermore, Harlan dismisses the argument that the Louisiana legislature made a law that simply separates the races but still provides both sides with equal protection. “Every one knows,” he argues forcefully, that the law was not designed to prohibit white people from riding on trains with black passengers. Instead, he says, the Louisiana government passed a law that prohibits blacks from traveling on public transportation with whites, a policy that runs counter to the color-blind nature of the Constitution. Harlan acknowledges that the court made the error of supporting racist laws in the past, citing the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, which denied citizenship to imported slaves, and he warns that government should not continue to foster racial divides. Harlan concludes that the Louisiana law is inconsistent with the ideals of personal liberty for all races and is therefore in contradiction to the principles of the Constitution.

Essential Themes

Plessy v. Ferguson was one of the first examples of the federal government’s endorsement of the “separate but equal” concept. From this point through the middle of the twentieth century, segregation was a legally acceptable practice. At the heart of the issue was the question of whether segregation amounted to state-sponsored racism. The Supreme Court decision in Plessy’s case impacted the American social order for decades to come.

Justice Brown, writing on behalf of the majority of his Supreme Court peers, argued that separating the races on public transportation would not necessarily establish the superiority of one race over another. The majority acknowledged that opponents to segregation laws would argue to the contrary. However, Brown and his peers asserted, such a position was grounded in perception and not in matters of fact or constitutionality.

Justice Harlan, the lone dissenter, argued that the Constitution was based on the notion that all Americans were equal in standing. Legal segregation, he stated, amounted to defiance of that principle and the reinstatement of black servitude. Furthermore, he argued, the separation of blacks from whites aboard public transportation perpetuated a feeling of distrust between the two racial groups and fostered interracial hate.

Despite Harlan’s dissent, the Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s law and similar statutes. Not until 1954, when the court issued a landmark decision in favor of desegregation in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, did Harlan’s counterargument find support in the US Supreme Court.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Hoffer, William James Hull. Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2012. Print.
  • Kelly, Blair L. M. Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2010. Print.
  • Medley, Keith. We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna: Pelican, 2012. Print.
  • Thomas, Brook, and Waldo E. Martin. Brown v. Board and Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford, 1999. Print.
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