Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Possibly The Worst Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court

Historical Context

This case took place just after the Reconstruction era, which "reconstructed" the southern states after the civil war and gave African Americans positive changes and more opportunities. Although it was after the civil war ended and slavery was abolished, racial segregation was still prevalent among places in U.S. Segregation laws were called Jim Crow laws. First, informal acts of racial segregation appeared in the Southern states, generally in public places. Then, southern states passed bills that required racial segregation in public locations, but careful enough to not make laws that contradict the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. For example, there was Louisiana’s Separate Car Act (1890). After this bill had passed, it was mandatory for railroads in Louisiana to have separate but same accommodations for different colored people. The Supreme Court did say having separate but same facilities for colored people was constitutional. Nevertheless, the colored places were generally worse than the white places, for nobody in the South took the law seriously. In conclusion, although there were laws that gave everyone some equal rights, segregation still existed.
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Facts of the Case

In 1892, a 30-year old shoemaker named Homer Adolph Plessy who was 1/8 black and 7/8 white, sat in the rail car reserved for whites. Plessy told the conductor that he was partly black, but refused to move to the colored rail car when asked to do so. He was immediately arrested and jailed for violating Louisiana's Separate Car Act, which passed only two years before. With supporters opposing racism, Plessy challenged the courts that the separation of blacks and whites violated the 13th and 14th amendments of the Constitution, specifically the equal protection clause. In the local circuit court, Plessy's case was judged by judge John Howard Ferguson. By the time Plessy's case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court and there was significant damage done in our society; equality between races had yet again subsided.

The Questions Before the Court

Is Louisiana's Law that requires segregation in its rail cars an act of infringement of the equal protection clause in the fourteenth amendment of the constitution?

Constitutional Clauses and Amendments

The equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment is involved. Also, a bit of the thirteenth and fifteenth amendments are involved. These generally concern discrimination.
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Court's Ruling

The case ended with a 7-1 vote with a judge who solely did not participate, the majority for Ferguson's side. The majority believed that the Louisiana's law requiring segregation in train facilities was constitutional because they believed in the "separate but equal doctrine". This belief states that as long as the facilities are equal, it does not go against the fourteenth amendment. The only justice that dissented, justice John Marshall Harlan, said what would become true in nearly 60 years, "Our Constitution is color-blind…. In respect of civil rights all citizens are equal before the law."
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Impact of the Case

After the Civil War ended, racism was finally subsiding in the United States. African Americans started to experience opportunities like never before, and the United States was one country once again. However, this court case turned around this whole development of equality and yet again encouraged pro-slave states to make more laws of segregation. Therefore, "colored" people would get less rights and the government of southern states would more likely make laws of segregation.