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Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), was a landmark case in the
jurisprudence of the United States, approving racial segregation in public facilities.

The ruling in the case Plessy v. Ferguson is one of the most studied in U.S.
Supreme Court history. It is often thought to be the case that formally
established, on legal grounds, the policy of racial segregation in the
United States. In actuality, it merely "went with the flow" of the tide
towards separation of blacks and whites in the United States under the
doctrine of "separate but equal."

Background

Plessy v. Ferguson is often incorrectly seen as the case that was chiefly
responsible for segregation in the United States before 1964. In fact, it
was not. The Supreme Court had previously ruled, in the Civil Rights Cases,
109 U.S. 3 (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to actions
taken by "individuals" that abridged other citizens' rights, only to actions
by the federal or state governments. The Court had also invalidated most of
the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had been an attempt by Radical
Republicans in Congress to protect the civil rights of African Americans
from infringement. This series of cases received much attention in both the
black and white press and were, in fact, primarily responsible for the
spread of segregation in the United States following Reconstruction, in the
late 19th century.

The Case

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 Tourge, 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.

Tourge built his case upon violations of Plessy's rights under the
Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment,
which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and
the equal protection of those rights, against the deprivation of life,
liberty, or property without due process of law. Tourgee argued that the
reputation of being a white man was "property," which, by the law, implied
the inferiority of African-Americans as opposed to whites.

The Decision

Announced on 18 May 1896, the 7-1 decision, with one abstention, was in
favor of the defendant, John H. Ferguson. Justice Henry B. Brown delivered
the opinion of the court, while Justice David J. Brewer abstained, and
Justice John Marshall Harlan made his famous dissent.

In essence, the court rejected Tourge's argument based on the Thirteenth
Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In
addition, the majority of the Court did not see how the Louisiana law
fostered any supposed inferiority of African-Americans, in violation of the
Fourteenth Amendment, as opposed to merely separating them. The justices
also ruled that, while the Court could find in favor of and actively promote
political equality, it could do nothing to ensure social equality between
the races. Moreover, it affirmed the rulings of the Civil Rights Cases and
other preceding Supreme Court and lower court decisions.

Justice Harlan, himself a former Kentucky slaveholder, on the other hand,
disagreed with the opinion of the majority. He opined that the U.S.
Constitution is color-blind and should not make such distinctions based on
race, and that such distinctions did, indeed, imply the inferiority of one
race to the other. His words dripped with anger at the system that was,
piece by piece, denying African-Americans the privileges and rights of
citizenship to which the laws of the United States entitled them.

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. The failure to provide
African Americans with genuinely equal facilities and resources worsened in
the years after the Plessy decision, thereby depriving African-Americans of
their rights, particularly under the Fourteenth Amendment, as citizens of
the United States, entitled to the same treatment as any other citizens.

In this sense, while Plessy is a highly significant and deservedly infamous
U.S. Supreme Court case that enforced segregation and thus deprived
African-Americans of their rights as citizens, it was not the primary reason
for segregation, that having already been established as the law by the
Civil Rights Cases and other contemporary events. Rather, Plessy merely
ratified and continued the move towards segregation begun earlier. While the
case received notice in both the black and white presses, the reports of the
case were not viewed at the time as particularly significant, especially
compared to the attention given to the Civil Rights Cases thirteen years earlier.

As to the case's immediate aftermath, in January 1897 Homer Plessy pled
guilty to violating the Louisiana statute and paid the $25 fine.

Plessy in the Twentieth Century

This ruling was not eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954, as is commonly thought. Plessy
dealt with accommodations in railway cars, not schools, and the Warren court
ruled that in education separate schools are inherently unequal. However,
the spirit of the Warren Court's decision in Brown was contrary to the
reasons set forth by the Fuller Court justices in Plessy for their ruling.

Eventually, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Plessy was formally
overturned by provisions outlawing racial discrimination in public
accommodations in Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These laws did
not directly challenge the previous decisions of courts that the
Reconstruction amendments did not authorize the federal government to pass
these laws, but rather were passed on the basis of an expanded reading of
the Commerce Clause of the United States constitution.
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