Plessy v. Ferguson


    Facts: Homer Plessy was incarcerated for riding in the Whites Only section of the Louisiana Railroad on June 7, 1892. The thirty year old shoemaker was "colored" according to the Louisiana statutes because he was one-eighths black and seven-eighths white. It was the Separate Car Act that was brought to issue in the Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana where it was argued to be "unconstitutional on trains that traveled through several states." The exception was made by trail judge John Howard Ferguson, however because the Louisiana Railroad only operated within the state of Louisiana and therefore subjected only to the state laws. Guilty of refusing to leave the white car, Plessy appealed his case to State Supreme Court of Louisiana, which upheld Ferguson's decision. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States heard Plessy's case and found him guilty once again.

    Issue: Should blacks be allowed to ride in the same train cars as whites?

    Decision: The United States Supreme Court decided that separate but equal does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.Speaking for a seven-person majority, Justice Henry Brown wrote:

      "That the Separate Car Act does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished too clear for argument...A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races -- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races...
      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, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."
    Justice John Harlan was the lone dissenter he wrote with incredible foresight when said:
      Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law...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...The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.

    Significance: This decision precipitated segregated schools. De facto segregation. Over time the precedent that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were equal became widespread extending to many public arenas such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools. But the words of Judge John Harlan were to ring true when the Supreme Court decision was later rescinded in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education.


Corkill, Phillip. The Law and American Education. Tucson, Arizona. 1991 (Lecture presented at the Flowing Wells School District Administrative Office).

Important Landmark Cases in Educational Law