Plessy v. Ferguson

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Plessy v. Ferguson
Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 13, 1896
Decided May 18, 1896
Full case name
Homer A. Plessy v. Ferguson
Citations 163 U.S. 537 (more)
16 S. Ct. 1138; 41 L. Ed. 256; 1896 U.S. LEXIS 3390
Prior history Ex parte Plessy, 11 So. 948 (La. 1892)
Subsequent history None
The "separate but equal" provision of public accommodations by state governments is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brown, joined by Fuller, Field, Gray, Shiras, White, Peckham
Dissent Harlan
Brewer took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1890 La. Acts 152
Overruled by

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of "separate but equal".

The decision was handed down by a vote of 7 to 1, with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Justice David Josiah Brewer did not participate in the decision. "Separate but equal" remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its repudiation in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.

After the high court ruled, the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) that had brought the suit and that had arranged for Homer Plessy's arrest in order to challenge Louisiana's segregation law, replied, “We, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred.”[1]



After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, during the period known as Reconstruction, the government was able to provide some protection for the civil rights of the newly-freed slaves. But when Reconstruction abruptly ended with the Compromise of 1877 and federal troops were withdrawn, southern state governments began passing Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from using the same public accommodations as whites.

The Thirteenth Amendment served to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. Under the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment, the term "slavery" implies involuntary servitude or a state of bondage and the ownership of mankind as property. That term implies the control of the labor and services of one person for the benefit of another and the absence of a legal rights regarding the disposal of one's own person, property and services. According to the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Thirteenth Amendment was intended primarily to abolish slavery as it had been previously known in the United States at the time, and that it equally forbade involuntary servitude. It was intimated, however, in that case that the Amendment was regarded at the time as insufficient to protect former slaves from certain laws which had been enacted in the Southern States, imposing upon them onerous disabilities and burdens and curtailing their rights in the pursuit of life, liberty and property to such an extent that their freedom was of little value. The Fourteenth Amendment was devised to meet this exigency.

The Supreme Court had ruled, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to the actions of government, not to those of private individuals, and consequently did not protect persons against individuals or private entities who violated their civil rights. In particular, the Court invalidated most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a law passed by the United States Congress to protect blacks from private acts of discrimination.

In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed Act 111 that required separate accommodations for African Americans and Whites on railroads, including separate railway cars, though it specified that the accommodations must be kept "equal". Concerned, several African Americans and Whites in New Orleans formed an association, the Citizen's Committee to Test the Separate Car Act, dedicated to the repeal of that law. They raised $1412.70 ($33768.76 in 2008 USD) which they offered to the then-famous author and Radical Republican jurist, Albion W. Tourgée, to serve as lead counsel for their test case. Tourgée agreed to do it for free. Later, they enlisted Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black (an octoroon in the now-antiquated parlance), to take part in an act of planned civil disobedience. The plan was for Plessy to be thrown off the railway car and arrested[2] not for vagrancy, which would not have led to a challenge that could reach the Supreme Court, but for violating the Separate Car Act, which could and did lead to a challenge with the high court.

The Committee hired a detective to ensure that Plessy was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act, which the Citizen's Committee wanted to challenge with the goal of having it overturned. They chose Plessy because, with his light skin color, he could buy a first class train ticket and, at the same time, be arrested when he announced, while sitting on board the train, that he had an African-American ancestor. For the Committee, this was a deliberate attempt to exploit the lack of clear racial definition in either science or law so as to argue that segregation by race was an "unreasonable" use of state power.

The intellectual roots of Plessy v. Ferguson were in part tied to the scientific racism of the era. However, the popular support for the decision was more likely a result of the racist beliefs held by most whites at the time.[3]

The case

Marker placed Feb. 12, 2009 commemorating the planned arrest of Homer Plessy June 17, 1892 for violating the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act. This was an act of civil disobedience carried out by the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) made up of the educated Free People of Color in New Orleans who had hoped (but failed) to have this segregation (Jim Crow) law stricken from the books.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad that was designated for use by white patrons only. Although Plessy was born a free person and was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, under a Louisiana law enacted in 1890, he was classified as an African-American, and thus required to sit in the "colored" car. When, in an act of planned disobedience, Plessy refused to leave the white car and move to the colored car, he was arrested and jailed. In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy argued that the East Louisiana Railroad had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. However, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies as long as they operated within state boundaries. Plessy sought a writ of prohibition.

Back of the marker placed Feb. 12, 2009 recalling the arrest of Homer Plessy for violating segregationist state law. His act of civil disobedience was planned by the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) (1891-96). They financed Plessy's legal challenge. Committee members were Arthur Esteves, C.C. Antoine, Firmin Chrisophe, C.G. Johnston, Paul Bonseigneur, Laurent Auguste, Rudolph B. Baquie, Rudolphe L. Desdunes, Louis A. Martinet, Numa E. Mansion, L.J. Joubert, Frank Hall, Noel Bachus, George Geddes and A.E. P. Albert. John Howard Ferguson, born in 1838 in Martha's Vineyard, MA., appointed judge in Section A of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court in 1892, ruled against Plessy in November, 1992. He is buried in Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans.

The Committee of Citizens took Plessy's appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling. Undaunted, the Committee appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy's behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf of Plessy. It would become one of the most famous decisions in American history because, for the first time, it established that racial segregation was protected by federal law.

The decision

In a 7 to 1 decision in which Justice David Josiah Brewer did not participate,[4] the Court rejected Plessy's arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.

When summarizing, Justice Brown declared, "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."

While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets and cafés, where the facilities designated for blacks were poorer than those designated for whites.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner who decried the excesses of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as that in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Harlan went on to say:

But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.

New Orleans historian Keith Weldon Medley, author of We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson, The Fight Against Legal Segregation, said the words in Justice Harlan's "Great Dissent" originated with papers filed with the court by "The Citizen’s Committee".[5]

The case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of separate but equal, the idea that segregation based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide blacks with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated races but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality. In January 1896, Homer Plessy pled guilty to the violation and paid the fine.

Influence of Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy legitimized the move towards segregation practices begun earlier in the South. Along with Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise address, delivered the same year, which accepted black social isolation from white society, Plessy provided an impetus for further segregation laws. In the ensuing decades, segregation statutes proliferated, reaching even to the federal government in Washington, D.C., which re-segregated during Woodrow Wilson's administration in the 1910s.

William Rehnquist wrote a memo called "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases", when he was a law clerk in 1952, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued that "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed." He continued, "To the argument… that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are."[6][7]

Plessy and Ferguson Foundation

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the players on both sides of the Supreme Court case, have announced the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education and Reconciliation. The foundation will work to create new ways to teach the history of civil rights through film, art, and public programs designed to create understanding of this historic case and its effect on the American conscience.[8]

"It is no longer Plessy v Ferguson. It is Plessy and Ferguson," said Keith Plessy in a Public Broadcasting radio interview[9] with WWNO in New Orleans on February 12, 2009, the day that historians gathered with the Plessy and Ferguson families and a member of the Louisiana Supreme Court to unveil a historical marker recalling the case, according to an article in The Times-Picayune[10]

The marker was placed on the corner of Press and Royal Streets, marking the spot in 1892 where Homer Plessy was, in an act of planned civil disobedience, thrown off the railway car and arrested.[11]

Documentary film

The documentary film, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans [12] chronicles the history and little known details of the case, Plessy v. Ferguson. The award-winning film is scheduled to be shown on PBS stations in the U.S. in February 2009.

See also


Further reading

  • Elliott, Mark (2006). Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson'. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195181395. 
  • Tushnet, Mark (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 69–80. ISBN 9780807000366. 
  • Brook, Thomas (1997). Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books. 
  • Fireside, Harvey (2004). Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision That Legalized Racism. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0786712937. 
  • Lofgren, Charles A. (1987). The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation.''. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Medley, Keith Weldon (2003). We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna, LA: Pelican. ISBN 1589801202.  Review
  • Chin, Gabriel J. (1996). "The Plessy Myth: Justice Harlan and the Chinese Cases". Iowa Law Review 82: 151. 

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
  • Text of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) is available from:  · Enfacto · LII
  • Text of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) is available from:  · Enfacto · LII

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