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The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2nd Edition edited by Hall, Kermit L (23rd June 2005)

P, Plessy v. Ferguson,

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 04 July 2020

Plessy v. Ferguson,

163 U.S. 537 (1896), argued 13 Apr. 1896, decided 18 May 1896 by vote of 7 to 1; Brown for the Court, Harlan in dissent, Brewer not participating. In this case the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute (1890) that required railroads to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” and barred persons from occupying railcars other than those to which their race had been assigned. The opinion is one of arresting contrasts: between its relative insignificance at the time and the symbolic importance it would attain during the next six decades, between the petty rationalization of the majority opinion and the abiding appeal of the dissent, and between the begrudging interpretation of the Civil War Amendments as applied to African-Americans and the expansive interpretation of the same amendments as applied to claims of economic right.

The dispute arose as a *test case to challenge a statute, an example of the Jim Crow laws then being passed in the South as whites sought to embellish their control of state governments. A New Orleans group of Creoles and blacks organized themselves as the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. Their challenge enjoyed some support from the railroads, who objected to the additional costs of providing separate cars. Plessy agreed to initiate the challenge on behalf of the committee. Although he appeared to be white, Plessy was classified as “colored” under the Louisiana code because he was one-eighth black.

A previous decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court had held that the statute could not apply to interstate commerce. Plessy was therefore careful to purchase a ticket for a journey entirely within the state of Louisiana, having insured in advance that the railroad and the conductor knew of his mixed race. He was arrested when he refused to move to the “colored only” section of the coach. Plessy attempted to halt the trial, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional under both the *Thirteenth and *Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. After the Louisiana courts rejected his arguments, he sought review by the Supreme Court.

Writing for the Court, Justice Henry Billings *Brown rejected both of Plessy’s arguments. He continued the Court’s practice of construing the Thirteenth Amendment to apply only to actions whose purpose was to reintroduce *slavery itself. It did not, he reasoned, reach all distinctions based on color.

Brown likewise held that the statute did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement that all citizens be afforded *equal protection of the laws. His cardinal postulate was that laws requiring separation of the races did not suggest that one race was inferior. Inferiority, according to Brown, arose only because one race chose to perceive the laws in such a way. It was equally fundamental to Brown that laws could not alter the long-established customs of society. For the Court to mandate that the races be mixed would be futile in the face of strong public sentiment as manifested by statutes requiring separation of the races in educational facilities. To support that proposition, Brown pointed to a line of cases beginning with an opinion by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts in Roberts v. City of Boston (1849).

By linking racial separation on trains with that in *education, Brown touched one of the most sensitive parts of the efforts to maintain separation of the races. Education was a bugbear for anyone who suggested legislation mandating racial equality. Brown therefore sought to support his conclusion by implying that transportation was like education. The enduring effect of Brown’s analogy was to place the Court’s imprimatur on a considerably expanded field in which segregation was justified.

Justice John Marshall *Harlan’s isolated *dissent would later support eloquent rejections of the *separate but equal doctrine, especially as applied to education. Harlan refused to restrict the Thirteenth Amendment to slavery itself, preferring (p. 740) to see the amendment as barring all “badge[s] of servitude” (p. 555). In one of the ringing phrases for which he is best known, Harlan argued that the “Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens” (p. 559). The epigram had been suggested in the brief field on behalf of Plessy by Albion Tourgée, a white attorney who was a leader in the campaign for equal rights.

See also race and racism; segregation, de jure.

Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case (1987). Otto H. Olsen, The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History; Plessy v. Ferguson: A Documentary Presentation (1864–1896) (1967).

Walter F. Pratt, Jr.