The Supreme Court issued a decision in 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that stated that Louisiana’s “separate but equal” law was constitutional. The case began when Homer Plessy, an African-American man, sat in a train car for whites. The court rejected Plessy’s argument that Louisiana’s law violated his constitutional rights. After the court issued their decision, restrictive Jim Crow laws and segregated public spaces quickly became commonplace.
Background and History
Reconstruction ended when federal troops withdrew from the South after the Compromise of 1877. African-Americans in the South had seen the promise of equality with the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, but after the withdrawal of the troops and return of Southern state and local governments to local control, those rights were quickly eroded and white supremacy grew. Black and white Southerners mixed somewhat freely until the 1880s, when lawmakers passed legislation requiring separate railway cars for “Negro” passengers.
African-American Reaction to Segregation
Southern blacks were horrified to see their newfound rights being restricted, and those in New Orleans decided to challenge the railway car laws. They recruited Homer Plessy, a mixed-race man who did not look black: He was seven-eighths white. Plessy bought a ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, on June 7, 1892, and when he boarded the train, he sat in a whites-only railway car. The conductor asked him to leave; Plessy refused. He was arrested, and a New Orleans court convicted him of breaking the law. Plessy’s lawyer responded by filing a lawsuit against the presiding judge, John H. Ferguson, claiming that the law (and Ferguson’s decision) breached Plessy’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Supreme Court Decision
The North was complicit in the growing segregation and blocking of African-American voting rights taking place in the South. In 1892, Congress failed to pass a bill that would have protected voting rights. During the same period, Congress also nullified some of the Reconstruction-era laws. It was in this atmosphere that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson on May 18, 1896. The court declared that the 14th Amendment only protected rights like voting and serving on juries and did not apply to other situations. The court also denied that the facilities offered to African-Americans under “separate but equal” laws were inferior to those provided for whites.
Justice John Marshall Harlan’s Dissent
The only justice to dissent from the majority opinion was Justice John Marshall Harlan. Harlan had owned slaves in Kentucky while working at his father’s legal firm and opposed the emancipation of former slaves. However, the rise of groups like the Ku Klux Klan changed his outlook. He argued in his dissent that “the arbitrary separation of citizens based on race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.”
The Significance of Plessy v. Ferguson
The verdict made “separate but equal” the doctrine of the land and allowed Jim Crow laws to flourish. Soon, not only were railroads segregated, but so were hotels, swimming pools, hotels, buses, and theaters. The 1899 case of Cummings v. Board of Education established that the “separate but equal” doctrine applied to schools, too. These rulings would stand until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was heard. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing in 1954, essentially agreed with Harlan’s 1896 dissent. He wrote that segregated schools were inherently unequal and the plaintiffs were being denied equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
- Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): Original documents about the landmark case from 1896 have been scanned in and are available to read.
- Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Decision: The Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute has the entire Supreme Court decision available.
- Landmark Cases: Plessy v. Ferguson: The case is considered one of the most critical rulings in the Supreme Court’s first 100 years because it legalized the idea of segregation, which stood until the court reversed itself in Brown v. Board of Education.
- Primary Documents in American History: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): The Library of Congress has the original documentation of this case in its collections.
- Case Topics: “Separate but Equal” and Equal Protection: Why is a court case from 1896 still discussed today? Multiple factors combined to make Plessy one of the most important Supreme Court cases of all time.
- Separate but Equal: The Law of the Land: Plessy v. Ferguson codified segregation as the law of the land until another case challenged the doctrine in front of the Supreme Court in the 1950s.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: Who Was Plessy? Homer Plessy was a 30-year-old shoemaker living in New Orleans when he boarded a train and became part of United States history. There was a real man behind the storied case, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. shares details of Plessy’s life here.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: Before Plessy v. Ferguson became one of the most important Supreme Court cases of all time, it was argued in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court, making it also a significant part of that court’s legacy.
- Top Ten Controversial Supreme Court Cases: Plessy v. Ferguson: Before Rosa Parks, there was Homer Plessy, and the decision issued by the Supreme Court in his case had only one dissenting opinion: that of Justice John Marshall Harlan.
- The Perniciousness of Plessy v. Ferguson: Homer Plessy didn’t board the train haphazardly. Since he was seven-eighths white, he was specifically chosen to test Louisiana’s new segregation law.
- The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation: Steve Luxenberg, author of Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation, speaks about his book and the enduring importance of the case.
- The Aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson Ruling: The Plessy ruling still reverberates through the United States today, but it also had an immediate impact. One impact was an increase in lynchings in the years following the Supreme Court decision.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: Requiescat in Pace? Learn about how legal firms, scientists, and others worked together to codify and scientifically approve racism during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Judgment of the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson: An excerpt from the Supreme Court decision and the dissenting opinion are transcribed here.
- Descendants of Landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Case Join Forces to Further Civil Rights Education: Descendants of both Plessy and Ferguson met in New Orleans and decided to form a foundation to teach the history of the case and its continuing relevance today.
- The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation: The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation works to develop programming to support discussion, debate, and a more in-depth understanding of civil rights and social justice issues in New Orleans and around the country.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: Harlan’s Great Dissent: Learn more about the only Supreme Court justice who voted against the ruling.
- Separate but Equal OK’ed by High Court: An interactive quiz lets you assess your knowledge, and the provided lesson plans offer resources and ideas for expanding knowledge about the case.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: 100 Years Later: The full transcript of a speech given near the 100th anniversary of the case by John Minor Wisdom offers a long view of the impact of the case and how the decision was reached.
- The Supreme Court Case That Enshrined White Supremacy: Between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, there was Lum v. Rice. Lum continued in Plessy’s footsteps in enshrining segregation as legally acceptable.
- In the Courts: From Plessy to Brown: The Constitutional Rights Foundation digs into the court cases that have impacted the rights of African-Americans.
- Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate Isn’t Equal: The Jim Crow Museum looks at how the decision codified unequal treatment in American society.
- Plessy v. Ferguson’s Impact on Segregation: C-SPAN hosted a conversation between Ted Shaw of the University of North Carolina Law School and Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School about the impact of the decision on the post-Reconstruction United States.