Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) | 1896
Author, "From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court & Struggle for Racial Equality"
University of North Carolina School of Law Center for Civil Rights Director & Professor
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Subject: Racial Segregation Under the “Separate-but-Equal” Doctrine
Case Decided:
May 18, 1896

In Plessy v. Ferguson the Court infamously ruled it was within constitutional boundaries for the state of Louisiana to enforce racial segregation in public facilities. In a 7-1 ruling (one of the nine Justices didn't consider the case due to the unexpected death of one of his daughters), the Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to enforce racial equality, not to eliminate the distinction based on color. Under that reasoning, the Court ruled segregation could not be considered unconstitutional. The decision was the birth of the "separate but equal" doctrine that African Americans lived under for decades until it was later overturned with the Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The case arose from Louisiana's enforcement of a law requiring separate railway cars for blacks and whites. Homer Adolph Plessy, who came from a mixed racial background, identified himself as seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. In 1892, Plessy bought a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and took a seat in the white coach of the segregated train. When asked to move, he refused and was jailed.

The case reached the Supreme Court almost five years later. The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Henry Brown, held that Louisiana's law did not violate the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and that "legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instinct or to abolish distinctions." In an impassioned dissent, Justice Harlan pointed out that those Reconstruction Amendments banned racial discrimination and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments removed the "race line from our systems of government," and challenged the majority opinion itself as unconstitutional.

Key Players
Homer Adolph Plessy
Homer Adolph Plessy (March 17, 1862 – March 1, 1925) was a shoemaker and civil rights activist. Plessy identified himself as seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood, which would make him "colored" under Louisiana's Jim Crow-era laws. Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad's Number 8 train. Plessy was removed from the train and arrested for violating Louisiana's racial segregation laws. Plessy took his case all the way to the Supreme Court where the court upheld state imposed segregation laws -- businesses were deemed acceptable if facilities provided services to blacks and whites. This "separate but equal" doctrine was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education.
Judge John H. Ferguson
John H. Ferguson was a criminal court judge in Louisiana. He was the defendant in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Justice Henry B. Brown
Henry B. Brown (March 2, 1836 – September 4, 1913) was a lawyer and district judge before being appointed to the Supreme Court. He wrote the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson where he upheld state imposed racial segregation in facilities for blacks and whites. He argued recognition of racial differences did not violate Constitutional principle. This was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Justice John Marshall Harlan
John Marshall Harlan (June 1, 1833 – October 14, 1911) was a lawyer, civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice (1877-1911). Justice Harlan was the sole dissenter in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that took down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He is referred to as the "Great Dissenter" and is one of the most influential dissenters in the Court's history. His role as an early white advocate of African-American rights stemmed from his family's slave-owning history and his relationship with his mixed-race half-brother Robert.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
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