Historical Cases - Plessy v. Ferguson
Learn about the history of civil rights, and controversial cases in law history. In this video you'll learn about the case of Plessy v. Ferguson from 1896.
Narrator: In 1896, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most controversial decisions. In this case, Chief Justice Fuller’s court would not be remembered for what it did but for what it did not do.
In 1881, Louisiana Law stated, “All railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in Louisiana, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train or by dividing the passenger coaches by partition. No person or persons shall be permitted to occupy seats in coaches other than the ones assigned to them on account f the race they belong to.”
On June 7th 1892, Homer Plessy who is 1/8 black sat down in a white only coach on the East Louisiana Railway, violating Louisiana Law and was arrested. Plessy challenged the law claiming it violated his 14th Amendment Rights. After a long appeals process, the question of constitutionality took the case all the way o the Supreme Court in one of the most infamous decisions ever handed down Justice Brown declared.
Henry B Brown; The object of the Fourteenth Amendment 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 equality. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children.
Narrator: By not condemning Louisiana’s actions, the Supreme Court gave tacit approval to segregation. The lone voice of dissent was Justice Harlan.
Justice Harlan: 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 civil rights. Further, I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to the race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved. All persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States. There is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it has. In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
Narrator: Ironically, it was Justice Harlan’s paraphrasing of the Louisiana Law in his dissent that resulted in the phrase “separate but equal”
James W. Ely, Jr.: I think what today people remember best about the Harlan dissent is his impassion call for a color-blind constitution. That the constitution doesn’t know classes or colors among its citizens of the United States.
Roger L. Goldman: Plessy v. Ferguson is a very important case. In that, it’s the first case that holds that discrimination as in Strauder under the constitution is not the same thing as “separate but equal” laws. Today we think that that’s wrong and most of us would agree with Justice Harlan’s dissent which said that segregation laws; separating people on basis of race is the same thing as discrimination.
The court back in the 1890’s wasn’t ready to make that decision.
Michael Middleton: back to the Slaughterhouse Case is the difference that the Federal Government pays to States Rights plays in to this Plessy-Strauder Ex Parte Virginia mix. In Plessy, it wasn’t an absolute exclusion of blacks from participating and some significant essential government function. It was a matter of segregating blacks and whites on passenger trains and the court indifference to States Rights to regulate its citizen’s jural distinction between the segregation of the racist for what that state consider to be a legitimate interest from the question 9of absolute exclusion of blacks from jury duty. So they drew a fine line in Plessy.
James W. Ely, Jr.: It’s only fair to bear in mind that Plessy did not originate segregation. It was originated in other Legislatures but it did legitimize it. And to that extending courage do you more segregation statures to be passed.
John E. Farley: They had had a huge impact on race relations because it made possible the whole system of Jim Crow segregation which was really the dominant condition I the North even before the civil war and then in the South after the end of reconstruction. It was really the ball work of racial discrimination on the entire country so by saying that “separate but equal” was okay to the court and a fact said that racial discrimination is okay.
James W. Ely, Jr.: Plessy was not very controversial when it was decided. The New York Times famously reported the case under Railroad News. Nobody had expected any different decision. The Supreme Court would have had a massive enforcement problem on its hands if they had quite to calm down the other way and in any event, nobody ever thought they would decide the case differently.
Plessy is a very interesting case of how the Supreme Court inevitably is influenced by the dominant and intellectual currents of its day and Plessy fit like glove.
By the time Plessy has decided which is in the 1890’s, dominant thinking of the United States has moved very far away from equal rights. Public opinion has become convinced that reconstruction was a mistake. Scientific racism was widely espoused at the leading universities in the country. There was very little impetuous or interest in racial minorities.
John E. Farley: Reconstruction was being dismantled and segregation was becoming the norm and that societal trim I think influence what went on in the court as well.
James W. Ely, Jr.: I think most careful students of Plessy even though they might not like this conclusion would agree that Plessy represented the public opinion of the day, thinking pretty close to representing elite scientific opinion of the day which was that we have to have a lot of area here for racial separation.
But I think it’s unfair to abuse the justices. In one sense, they didn’t create segregation and the truth is they really could not have eliminated it in the 1890’s.
Historical Cases - Plessy v. Ferguson
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