Plessy v. Ferguson

163 U. S. 527 (1896)

"Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." —Justice John Marshall Harlan, in his dissent for Plessy v. Ferguson

Case Summary

In 1890 the Louisiana Legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which required railroads "to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races" in order to protect the safety and comfort of all passengers. In 1891 in New Orleans, a group of African-American and Creole doctors, lawyers, and businessmen formed the "Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law." The committee chose Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, to test the law by violating it. On June 7, 1892, he bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway that traveled from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded the train, walked past the coach clearly marked "For Coloreds Only," and took a seat in the coach clearly marked "For Whites Only." He informed the conductor of his racial background. When the train conductor asked Plessy to move to the other coach, he refused and was arrested. He was charged with violation of the Separate Car Law, tried in a Criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans, found guilty, and sentenced to jail. He appealed his conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld the law and Plessy's conviction. Plessy and his lawyers then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following question:

Does a state law which requires "equal but separate" railway accommodations for African-Americans and whites violate either the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of slavery or the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection of the law clause?

Decision

Fuller Court (1888-1910)

By a 7-1 vote with one Justice not participating, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law and thus Homer Plessy's conviction for having violated it. Justice Henry Brown wrote the opinion of the Court. Brown first addresses the question of whether the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth Amendment and dismisses it very quickly: "A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color – has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude."

Brown then turns to the question of whether the Louisiana law violated the equal protection of the law guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. He writes: "The object was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other …"

Brown concludes with these remarks: "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. … The argument also assumes that … equal rights cannot be secured to the Negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other's merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals."

Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented alone in one of his most famous opinions: "In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the Constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights. … Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. …"

Harlan concludes with some of the most famous remarks ever written by any member of the nation's highest Court: "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. … The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done."

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