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Plessy v. Ferguson
Plessy v. Ferguson, was a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, approving de jure racial segregation in public facilities, and ruling that states could prohibit of the use of public facilities by African Americans.
Immediately after the end of the American Civil War in 1865, during the period known as "Reconstruction", the federal government was able to provide some protection for the civil rights of the newly freed slaves. But when Reconstruction ended in 1877 and federal troops were withdrawn, southern state governments began passing "Jim Crow" laws that prohibited blacks from using the same public accommodations as whites.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 Supreme Court had ruled, in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to the actions of state governments, not to those of "individuals", and consequently did not prohibit individuals from violating the civil rights of other citizens. In particular, the Court invalidated most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a law passed by the Radical Republican-controlled Congress to protect the civil rights of African Americans.
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed a law that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, several black and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to the repeal of that law. They eventually persuaded Homer Plessy, an octoroon (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent), to test it. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans to Covington. The railroad company had been informed already as to Plessy's racial lineage, and after Plessy had taken a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately.
Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish, despite his objections that the Louisiana law was in violation of the Constitution of the United States. He was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine.
Eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Plessy was represented by Albion Tourgée , a prominent lawyer of the day, and Samuel F. Phillips , while the defendant, Judge John Ferguson of the Louisiana court, was represented by Alexander Porter Morse .
Tourgée built his case on two amendments that had been added to the Constitution in the wake of the Civil War: the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth. The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from abridging the "privileges and immunities" of United States citizens, or denying those citizens due process or the equal protection of the law. Tourgée argued that the Louisiana railroad segregation law implied the inferiority of African-Americans.
Announced on May 18, 1896, the 7-1 decision, with one abstention, upheld the Louisiana statute. Justice Henry B. Brown delivered the opinion of the court, while Justice David J. Brewer abstained, and Justice John Marshall Harlan delivered his famous dissent.
The court rejected Tourgée's arguments based on the Thirteenth 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 fostered any inferiority of African-Americans, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, but held rather that the law merely separated the races as a matter of social policy. 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." In consequence, the Court held that state governments could bar blacks from public facilities based on traditional notions of racial inferiority.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, himself a former Kentucky slaveholder, disagreed with the opinion of the majority. Harlan's dissent, which has been widely cited and served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement, argued in stirring language that the Reconstruction Amendments did, in fact, protect African-Americans from state action of the type at issue in Plessy. Harlan declared: "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. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved." Harlan argued that the Louisiana law at issue in the case, which forced separation of white and black passengers on railway cars, was a "badge of servitude" that degraded African-Americans, and correctly predicted that the Court's ruling would become as infamous as its ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case.
The case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of "separate but equal," which permitted separation of the races, but only as long as facilities for both races were of equal quality. Southern state governments refused, however, to provide African Americans with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision.
Plessy legitimized the move towards segregation practices in the South begun earlier. 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 resegregated during Woodrow Wilson's administration in the 1910s.
The demise of Plessy
In the wake of the civil rights movement, Southern segregation laws were rendered inoperative by provisions outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations in Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- List of United States Supreme Court Cases
- Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1886)
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
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