After I get my Bachelor's Degree in Business, I plan to go on to get my Law degree. This is research that I have done on a particularly controversial case in United States history, Plessy v. Ferguson.

Plessy v. Ferguson

                Imagine that you were put into jail for sitting in the wrong railway car; that’s exactly what happened to Homer Plessy, a black man in Louisiana on June 7th, 1892. A statute was instituted in Louisiana in 1890 that stated that there could be “separate but equal” public facilities for different races; this legislation was called the Separate Car Law.  He was in the all-white railcar and refused to move to the “Colored” rail car in the back of the train, it is reported that he was part of a civil rights group protesting the Separate Car Law in Louisiana (much like Rosa Parks when she refused to leave a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama c. 1960). At trial for his crime, Plessy was found guilty because the presiding judge, John Ferguson ruled that the statute implemented in 1890 was a reasonable use for the state’s legal power. He based his opinion on custom and tradition in the state of Louisiana, a state that had seceded from the union thirty five years prior to fight for the slavery of black people.

                Once he was found guilty, Plessy filed for writs of both prohibition and certiorari in the Supreme Court of Louisiana, emphasizing that separate but equal was belittling to blacks and afforded them no way to advance in society while also violating both their Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendment rights. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments are also known as the Civil War Amendments, and they were meant to provide equality in voting, property and social rights of blacks. Also included in Plessy’s petition was the fact that he was seven-eighths Caucasian, and that he was entitled to every privilege of every other citizen of the state of Louisiana; the Supreme Court accepted his position and granted a writ of error by the court, which meant that Plessy could plead his case in front of the Supreme Court.

                The Supreme Court heard the case in 1896, and Plessy’s lawyers fought vigorously for his rights. They argued that their client’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated by the law and by his imprisonment based on his violation of said law. Plessy also argued that separate but equal and segregation in general displayed black Americans with a sense of inferiority, which would mean that the law directly broke both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment.

                In a seven to one decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy. Briefly put, the majority was saying that States could, in fact, pass a law that required different races to have separate facilities for many everyday activities. The overall result was a short term excommunication of Black people from American society. There were separate facilities for bathrooms, movie theaters, diners, all transportation, schools and even daycares. The majority opinion was given by Henry Brown of Michigan, his opinion is as follows:

 “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it… The argument also assumes that social prejudice may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured except by an enforced commingling of the two races… If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” (ourdocuments)

                This opinion is insinuating that the black population is bringing its inequality on itself by recognizing that the laws put in place against blacks were displaying them as inferior. The majority opinion is almost difficult to even read because of the sheer racism behind Justice Brown’s words; he says that segregating the races is a better standard for equality than inter-mingling them, that the blacks are simply socially inferior to the Caucasian race, and that the Constitution cannot help them with such an issue.  Views like that of Justice Brown are reprehensible to say the least in the 21st century, but his opinion was highly regarded, especially by his peers. The lone dissenter in this case, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, wrote an icy, powerfully constructed dissent on the case. His dissent is as follows:

                “I am of the opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberties of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings of freedom; to regulate civil rights common to all citizens, upon the basis of race; and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the people of the United States, for whom an by whom, through representatives, our government is administrated. Such a system is inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

                This dissent by Harlan was a brave and pragmatic opinion in 1896. He defended things like Black liberty and real social equality. Harlan saw separate but equal for what it was, segregation to keep a race of people below the rest. Also, the Justice was correct when he stated that “If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous”. This meant that he knew that when segregation became popular in several, particularly southern, states, the result would be legal and judicial inequality, with a real vision of inferiority for the black race. This dissent is very powerful both intellectually and emotionally, and is also referenced several times in the case that repeals separate but equal, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. 

                The significance of this case cannot be overstated; it is without a doubt one of the top ten most important court cases in U.S. history. After this decision, many states adopted the separate but equal policy; carrying on the “tradition” of the Jim Crow laws and continuing to implement segregation anywhere possible. Not only was Homer Plessy not helped in his fight to protest segregation, he was in jail the entire time the case was being considered, and for over fifty years it seemed as though his fight had been for naught. The ruling in this case provided the means for many of the worse actions by the U.S. government and its citizens in the 20th century. A few examples of these actions are, limiting employment, restricting property allowances, making it impossible for blacks to get loans, go to good schools, or even serve in the same military platoon as a white man. The result of these actions were the Harlem Renaissance, projects, poverty, ghettos, rundown segregation schools, and some of the most effective and brave military personnel in WWI and WWII not being immediately recognized because they were African American.

                This is not to say that the period of separate but equal caused the Black community to be stagnant, the African American community continued to advance American society despite not being able to even use the restroom in the same vicinity as their white counterparts. Individuals like George Washington Carver, W.E.B Dubois, Louis Armstrong, Marcus Garvey and Langston Hughes furthered the American culture and science in the early 20th century. Carver was a scientist who found over one hundred uses for peanuts, Dubois, Garvey and Hughes were integral in the Harlem Renaissance, a social movement that expressed African American emotion and belief through literature, and Louis Armstrong was a musician who was so talented that he was often invited and paid to play in white dance clubs in the 1920s. African Americans continued to push for social equality and true American citizenship throughout the early 20th century, and they would protest, take action, write literature, play music and do whatever they had to do to realize their part in the American Dream.

                It is my belief that had the Separate but Equal movement really meant what its title entailed, the African American community would have had LESS of a problem with it. This was not the case; it took almost sixty years for the majority of Americans to see the true nature of the separate but equal facilities. For example, in Mobile, Alabama every single public restroom and public school was segregated, and the maintenance, hygiene and overall quality of these facilities was so poorly kept that many black children did not go to school, and the bathrooms and drinking fountains were places of risk for illness. This leads to my opinion that I do not agree with the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. I found Justice Brown’s majority opinion in this case to be a near sickening explanation of his thinking that African Americans really were below him, and that they made themselves that way. This case was treated like a joke by the courts at this time, and an educated, perfectly civil and free man lost many years of his life for sitting in the wrong bus seat and trying to defend his right as a citizen of the United States of America. It is difficult for me to understand or fathom the system of beliefs and racism of the 1890s, but all of the literature that I have read about it leads me to believe that it was a result of ignorance and limited exposure. Most Caucasian people in the 1800s had either only met African Americans as slaves or not at all; they were not aware that there were extremely intelligent, genuinely benevolent and intuitive black people. My largest problem with this decision is how long it stayed in action, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was not until 1954, meaning that there were fifty eight years of segregated facilities and separate but equal laws in the United States before we integrated the races together. This case is an example of American wrongdoing and was a staple in southern America for a long time; but the resulting case is an example of American triumph and moral and social victory, and was the first step towards the better America that we live in today and the America that I know we will live in in the future.


Works Cited

"Plessy v. Ferguson – Case Brief Summary." Lawnix Free Case Briefs RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

"Plessy v. Ferguson." Plessy v. Ferguson. N.p., 18 Apr. 2009. Web. 03 Nov. 2013

"Plessy v. Ferguson Summary." Our Documents -. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

"Plessy v. Ferguson." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

"Before and After Plessy vs. Ferguson." Before and After Plessy vs. Ferguson. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

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