On May 18, 1896, little more than three decades after the end of the Civil War, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law mandating the separation of blacks and whites on trains when applied to travel within the state was constitutional.
Plessy v. Ferguson was the second of two test cases initiated and funded by the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), a group of prominent mixed-race and African New Orleanians challenging the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. John Howard Ferguson, the trial judge in both cases, dismissed the charges against Daniel Desdunes, the defendant in the interstate case, citing a state case, Abbot v. Hick (1892), holding that the regulation of interstate commerce was a federal matter. Thus, Louisiana could not apply the Separate Car Act to trains traveling on interstate trips. Homer Adolph Plessy, the defendant in the intrastate case, was not as lucky.
In 1892 Homer Plessy, a 29-year-old shoemaker, purchased a first-class train ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. Plessy, described by the U.S. Supreme Court as having “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood,” was physically indistinguishable from a white man, but he was classified as “colored” under state law. To test the law Plessy took a seat in the train car reserved for white first-class passengers. The train conductor asked, “Are you a colored man?” When Plessy replied affirmatively, the conductor demanded that he go to the car reserved for colored passengers. Plessy refused, and was arrested and charged with “going into a coach used by the race to which he did not belong” in violation of the Separate Car Act, a law enacted by the state legislature “to promote the comfort of passengers.”
During the trial, lawyers for Plessy argued unsuccessfully that the Separate Car Act violated his citizenship rights secured by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. A unanimous Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the trial judge’s ruling. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and four years later that court upheld the state law.
Justice Henry Billings Brown, a Massachusetts native appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890, wrote the majority opinion. He quickly dismissed the Thirteenth Amendment claim, saying that it only applied to actions that constitute slavery or servitude, not to distinctions in color. Similarly he dismissed Plessy’s Fourteenth Amendment claims, pausing only to explore the equal protection argument. According to Justice Brown, the Fourteenth Amendment protects only legal or political equality, and riding in integrated train coaches is an expression of social (not legal or political) equality. Although he denied that legalizing racial segregation is tantamount to affirming racial inferiority, later in the same paragraph Justice Brown wrote, “If one race be inferior to the other socially the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” Thus, according to Justice Brown, the only question before the Court was whether the Separate Car Act was a reasonable state regulation. He concluded it was.
Described by judicial scholar Robert J. Glennon as “preeminently a pragmatist,” Justice Brown strongly supported all kinds of state police legislation. This predisposition to upholding state regulations explains the approving references to other examples of government-mandated racial segregation by states such as Indiana, New York, Kentucky, California, and Ohio, and by Congress in legislation covering the District of Columbia. Justice Brown also cited an 1850 Massachusetts Supreme Court case, Roberts v. City of Boston, upholding racially segregated public schools in Boston, and state laws prohibiting interracial marriage as evidence outside the South of the nation’s determination to keep the races separate socially. Further, the northern-dominated Reconstruction Congress that drafted the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867, he wrote, was aware of the Roberts decision and indicated no sweeping desire to overturn the practice of racial separation.
The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, was a Southerner and former slaveholder from Kentucky. Although he spent considerable time chiding the majority for its disingenuousness in suggesting that racial superiority and inferiority were not at the heart of racial segregation laws, Justice Harlan did not believe that blacks were the social equals of whites. Social equality for blacks, he said, was not a real possibility in this country, since “[t]he white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. . . . So, I doubt not, that it will continue to be for all time.” Nevertheless, the prevalence of racial segregation laws and practices indicated to Justice Harlan that whites already believed blacks were inferior.
Since black inferiority already was accepted, he said, more harm than good came from segregated trains laws that constituted “badge[s] of servitude” in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Writing those now famous words, “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind,” Justice Harlan counseled against “[t]he arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway.” Because, he continued, “the destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together,” attempts to perpetuate separation in legal codes will “certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races.”
The “separate but equal” doctrine announced by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson remained the law of the land until 1954, when a different Supreme Court announced in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal has no place in public education. Quickly thereafter, the Court struck down racial segregation laws in other areas as well. In the late twentieth century, Justice Harlan’s colorblind language was used to challenge affirmative action efforts designed to compensate for the resulting harms from the separate but equal doctrine.
Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Keith Weldon Medley, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2003); Otto H. Olsen, The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History; Plessy v. Ferguson: A Documentary Presentation, 1864–1896 (New York: Humanities Press, 1967); and Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford, 1997).