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What were the key points in Plessy v. Ferguson ?

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  • 1 decade ago
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    Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)[citation needed], 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 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 But when Reconstruction abruptly ended in 1877 and federal troops were withdrawn, southern state governments began passing Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from using the same public accommodations as whites.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 (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to the actions of state governments, not to those of private individuals, and consequently did not protect persons against individuals or private entities who violated their civil rights. In particular, the Court invalidated most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a law passed by Congress to protect Blacks from private acts of discrimination.

    In 1890, the State of Louisiana had 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 persuaded Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black (an octoroon in the vocabulary of the day), to test it. In 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans. Once he had boarded the train, Plessy informed the train conductor of his actual racial lineage, and after Plessy had taken a seat in the whites section he was asked to vacate it and sit instead in the "blacks only" section. Plessy refused and was immediately arrested.

    Eventually the case made its path to the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy built his case on an abridgment of the "privileges and immunities" of United States citizens, or denying those citizens due process or the equal protection of the law. Albion W. Tourgée, a lawyer representing Plessy, argued that the Louisiana railroad segregation law implied the inferiority of Blacks.


    The decision

    The 7–1 decision authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown upheld the Louisiana statute.

    The court rejected Plessy'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 Blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, but held rather that the law merely separated the races as a matter of social policy.

    Justice Brown finally 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."

    While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets and cafés, where the facilities designated for blacks were poorer than those designated for whites.

    Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slaveowner, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as that in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Harlan went on to say:

    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.

    As an aftermath, the case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of segregation as legal as long as facilities are equal, which permitted separation of the races as long as facilities for both races were of equal quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide Blacks with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. They not only separated races but also ensured differences in quality.

    Plessy legitimized the move towards segregation practices begun earlier in the South. 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.

    In January 1897, Homer Plessy pleaded guilty to the violation and paid the $25 fine.

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  • 1 decade ago

    Plessy v. Ferguson

    163 U.S. 537 (1896)

    Docket Number: 210


    May 18, 1896


    April 13, 1896

    Facts of the Case

    The state of Louisiana enacted a law that required separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy--who was seven-eighths Caucasian--took a seat in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train. He refused to move to the car reserved for blacks and was arrested.

    Question Presented

    Is Louisiana's law mandating racial segregation on its trains an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?


    No, the state law is within constitutional boundaries. The majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown, upheld state-imposed racial segregation. The justices based their decision on the separate-but-equal doctrine, that separate facilities for blacks and whites satisfied the Fourteenth Amendment so long as they were equal. (The phrase, "separate but equal" was not part of the opinion.) Justice Brown conceded that the 14th amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races before the law. But Brown noted that "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 unsatisfactory to either." In short, segregation does not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination.

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