Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case which reconciled the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment with a system of state-imposed racial segregation via the formula "separate but equal."
When 30-year-old shoemaker Homer Plessy refused to leave his seat on a New Orleans train in 1892, he set in motion a battle that traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court's 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, permitted states to institute racially separate public accommodations despite the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law. It would take nearly 60 years for the Court to reverse itself, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and overturn the judicial precedent for segregation.
The segregated public transportation system that Homer Plessy challenged in 1892 was relatively new to New Orleans, whose French and Spanish roots, many free blacks, and community of prominent Creole citizens made it one of America's most socially and economically progressive cities. Plessy himself had been born free in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, in which Union forces took control of the city's port. Throughout the war and Reconstruction, the Northern army was a check on the Southern Democratswho sought a restoration of white power at all costs.
Just before the war, in 1860, New Orleans's trains were first segregated. Those adorned with black stars were meant for black passengers only — a difficult rule to enforce, because of the many mixed-race people and mixed marriages in New Orleans. Plessy himself was fair-skinned enough to pass for white. In 1867, the city removed the black stars from its trains, and the system returned to its earlier, integrated state.
But with the declining support of the Republican-controlled U.S. government, Reconstruction faltered. Increasingly, Southern Democrats took back the power they had lost in Louisiana. In 1890, Governor Francis T. Nicholls — elected as part of an 1876 compromise balancing a Republican president with Democratic control of the South — signed the law re-segregating Louisiana's railways. It stated that train companies had to provide "equal but separate" cars for blacks and whites, and that individuals of different races could not ride together without risking a $25 fine or 20 days in jail. The Louisiana Senate passed the law by a vote of 23 to 6.
African Americans and Creoles in New Orleans mobilized to fight the law. Rodolphe Desdunes, columnist for The Crusader, a black-owned newspaper, proposed that African Americans boycott the train system, writing that blacks "can withdraw the patronage from these corporations and travel only by necessity." But his idea did not take hold. Fears of violent white reprisals limited black political activism, and noted African American leaders like Booker T. Washington preached patience and accommodation.
A Louisiana group calling itself the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens' Committee) planned to test the law's constitutionality — specifically, to prove that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens "the equal protection of the laws." Made up of prominent New Orleans blacks and whites, including The Crusader's publisher, Louis Martinet and Desdunes, the Comité arranged for Plessy to board a whites-only train. By prearrangement with contacts in the East Louisiana Railroad Company, a conductor asked Plessy, who was of mixed race, if he was a "colored man." When Plessy said he was, and refused to move, the conductor and private detective hired by the Comité accompanied him to the police station, where he was booked and then released on $500 bond posted by a Comité member.
Judge John H. Ferguson, a Massachusetts native, presided over Plessy's arraignment a month later. Ferguson had earlier ruled the Louisiana law unconstitutional when it demanded segregated train cars for travel between states. Martinet had written in The Crusader that, with this decision, "Jim Crow is dead as a doornail." But in Plessy's case, Ferguson sided with the state, saying that Louisiana, in compelling racial segregation among its in-state train system, had not violated African Americans' constitutional rights.
Louisiana's State Supreme Court agreed with Ferguson, citing a Massachusetts case, Roberts v. City of Boston, in which the state's chief justice had written that "prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law and cannot be changed by law." In addition, Roberts was the source of the phrase "separate but equal." The opinion also quoted a Pennsylvania case whose ruling rested upon the "natural, legal, and customary difference between the black and white races."
Plessy's lawyer, the white activist and writer Albion Tourgée, brought the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Tourgée's brief argued that the Louisiana law "is obnoxious to the spirit of republican institutions, because it is a legalization of caste," and that it violated both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments in limiting "the natural rights of man."
The Court ruled seven to one (one justice did not participate) that Plessy's constitutional rights had not been violated. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry B. Brown wrote that while the Fourteenth Amendment had "undoubtedly" been meant to enforce "absolute equality" between the races, it did not "abolish distinction based on color," citing many states' laws mandating separate schools and prohibiting interracial marriages — laws that were themselves ruled unconstitutional later. The opinion went on to say that "legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions."
In a lone but strong dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Southerner, cited cases in which segregated juries had been found unconstitutional, and went on to say in plain language what Plessy's opponents would not admit: that the separate car law not only separated the races, but did so to accommodate white racial prejudice. Legal segregation, Harlan wrote, allowed "the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanctions of law." He went on to say that "the thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations ...will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done."
Harlan's words proved prophetic. The "separate but equal" doctrine relegated African American children to inadequate, unsafe schools, while the South's Jim Crow laws forbade black citizens from participating on an equal footing with white citizens. Not until the Supreme Court reversed itself in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education would African Americans be able to claim the rights promised in the U.S. Constitution.