Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson2018-12-05T17:05:03+00:00

Plessy v. Ferguson for APUSH

About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy vs Ferguson (1896)was a United States Supreme Court case that established the precedent of “separate but equal” and provided the legal justification for the expansion of segregation in America. At the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877, the South (and to a certain degree, the North) had resisted attempts to integrate the newly freed slaves into their society. The passage of restrictive laws known as Black Codes in 1865 and 1866 established a mentality of resistance to integration throughout southern society. The South’s determination to retain superiority over the freed slaves led to economic and political restraints being placed on them.

At the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877, the South (and to a certain degree, the North) had resisted attempts to integrate the newly freed slaves into their society.

Segregation After the Civil War

While the passage of the 13thAmendment outlawed chattel slavery (ownership of a person), Southerner’s found other ways to control African Americans. Sharecropping and tenet farming were used to economically control African Americans as poll taxes and literacy tests were used to restrict access to voting and having any political influence. However, keeping social superiority was crucial to retaining the pre-Civil War culture of white dominance in the South. This was done through the systematic segregation of the races in all aspects of society: separate schools, churches, restaurants, public facilities, and railway cars are a few examples.

Systematic segregation was in all aspects of society: separate schools, churches, restaurants, public facilities, and railway cars are a few examples.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act restricting whites and blacks from riding in railway cars together. This was just one in a long line of segregationist policies enacted in the South following the end of Reconstruction and continuing throughout the first half of the 20thcentury. In an attempt to challenge this law, Homer Plessy, a light skinned man with one-eight African American heritage, bought a train ticket and took a seat in the “whites only” train car and then refused to move when asked to do so by the train operators. He was subsequently arrested and the issue began to move through the courts and ultimately ended up before the US Supreme Court in 1896.

In an attempt to challenge the Separate Car Act, Homer Plessy, a light skinned man with one-eight African American heritage, bought a train ticket and took a seat in the “whites only” train car and then refused to move when asked to do so by the train operators.

The court was now forced to confront directly the meaning of equality under the Constitution.

The court was now forced to confront directly the meaning of equality under the Constitution. At odds were the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the segregation laws that had been passed in the South and Border States. The court dismissed Plessy’s argument that the statute violated his equal protection rights guaranteed under the 14thAmendment in a 7-1 decision.

Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion of the court and used the following rationale to justify the court’s decision:

“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 (law), but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

As the lone dissenting voice, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in his opinion:

“Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

The decision to deny Plessy, and by extension, African Americans throughout the country equal protection under the 14thAmendment provided the legal justification for segregation laws throughout the country and ushered in the era of “separate but equal”.

A New Precedent

The Plessy decision’s separate but equal doctrine ushered in full-scale (and Supreme Court validated) segregation in the southern and Border States. However, segregation laws were not wholly confined to the South, as there were examples of northern segregation enacted under the same precedent. Under the new ruling, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment permitted the separation of people based upon race (or any other factor) as long as the facilities or opportunities that were being offered to one were roughly equal to what was being offered to the other. Of course, an honest comparison of facilities and/or opportunities being presented were hardly ever equal.

Under the new ruling, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment permitted the separation of people based upon race (or any other factor) as long as the facilities or opportunities that were being offered to one were roughly equal to what was being offered to the other.

This ability of the states to now pass segregation laws began to permeate throughout southern society and ushered in a more expansive approach to racial segregation.

This ability of the states to now pass segregation laws began to permeate throughout southern society and ushered in a more expansive approach to racial segregation. This became known as the Jim Crow era. Enacted by white Democratic dominated state legislatures, Jim Crow laws were specifically designed to keep whites in a position of power by restricting access of African Americans to education, voting, housing, jobs, and access to loans from banks. Using the precedent and resulting legal justification outlined in Plessy v Fergusonand still present racism and desire for social superiority, southern society was once again a place of oppression and danger for African Americans. In 2015, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative found that nearly 4,000 black people were killed in lynchings in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950.

Jim Crow laws were specifically designed to keep whites in a position of power by restricting access of African Americans to education, voting, housing, jobs, and access to loans from banks.

This continued violence inspired reformers to push for legislation and drive up awareness to the violence that was occurring in the South. Ida B. Wells pushed for anti-lynching legislation throughout the nation. Booker T. Washington encouraged greater participation in economic endeavors and established the National Negro League Business League and oversaw the construction of the Tuskegee Institute aimed at training black leaders.       W.E.B. DuBois helped found the Niagara Movement and in 1906 he worked to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP as it became widely known. These and many other reformers challenged the new status quo that was created by the Plessy v Fergusondecision.

Separate but Equal Comes to an End

The first half of the 20thcentury witnessed a constant struggle for the pursuit of equality under the law. The Plessy v Fergusondecision hung like an ominous cloud over oppressed groups who worked tirelessly to escape its effects.

The first half of the 20thcentury witnessed a constant struggle for the pursuit of equality under the law. The Plessy v Fergusondecision hung like an ominous cloud over oppressed groups who worked tirelessly to escape its effects. After World War II, a more concentrated effort was made by civil rights groups like the NAACP to challenge established discrimination laws. One of the individuals at the forefront of this movement was a young and brilliant lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.  He would become Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and go on to win 29 of the 32 cases he brought to the Supreme Court and would himself serve on the high court as the first African American Associate Justice.

One of those cases brought before the court was a direct challenge to the precedent of separate but equal outlined in Plessy v Ferguson. The case of Brown v Board of Education (1954), challenged the concept of separate but equal in public schools. The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren issued a 9-0 decision that effectively gutted the doctrine of separate but equal that was established in Plessy describing the separation of educational facilities, regardless of conditions, as “inherently unequal” and thus, unconstitutional. While specific to public schools, the Brown v Board of Educationdecision became the foundation for future court decisions and paved the way for integration in other parts of society in the second half of the 20thcentury.

While specific to public schools, the Brown v Board of Educationdecision became the foundation for future court decisions and paved the way for integration in other parts of society in the second half of the 20thcentury.

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