• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit government-mandated segregation as long as accommodations were equal for both races.

During the late nineteenth century, southern state legislatures enacted many laws requiring segregation. Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890 provided for “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” on passenger railways within the state. In a test case, Homer Plessy, who was classified as “colored” because of his one-eighth African ancestry, was arrested for refusing to leave a car reserved for whites. Plessy claimed that the law was unconstitutional under both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.Segregation;Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson]

Justices of the Court that ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson: Melville W. Fuller; Horace Gray; Rufus W. Peckham; Edward D. White; John Marshall Harlan; Henry B. Brown; David J. Brewer; Stephen J. Field; and George Shiras, Jr.

(Library of Congress)

By a 7-1 vote, the Supreme Court sustained the Louisiana law. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry B. BrownBrown, Henry B.;Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson] narrowly interpreted the words of both amendments. Although the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to guarantee “the absolute equality of the races before the law,” it did not require social equality or racial intermingling. Brown could see no evidence that segregation “stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority,” and he assumed that the laws were incapable of changing long-established customs. The lone dissenter, former slave owner Justice John Marshall Harlan, argued that racial separation amounted to imposing “a badge of servitude” on African Americans, and he wrote, “Our Constitution is color blind and neither knows or tolerates classes among its citizens.”

The Plessy doctrine of separate but equal provided the constitutional foundation for the Jim Crow system. Beginning in the 1930’s, the Court began to chip away at the doctrine and to demand that public facilities really be equal. It was not until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that the Court repudiated the Plessy precedent.

Brown v. Board of Education

Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education

Equal protection clause

Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.

Race and discrimination

Segregation, de jure

Separate but equal doctrine

Taney, Roger Brooke

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