The ruling in the case Plessy v. Ferguson is one of the most studied in U.S. Supreme Court history. It is often thought to be the case that formally established, on legal grounds, the policy of racial segregation in the United States. In actuality, it merely "went with the flow" of the tide towards separation of blacks and whites in the United States under the doctrine of "separate but equal."
Plessy v. Ferguson is often incorrectly seen as the case that was chiefly responsible for segregation in the United States before 1964. In fact, it was not. The Supreme Court had previously ruled, in the \Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to actions taken by "individuals" that abridged other citizens' rights, only to actions by the federal or state governments. The Court had also invalidated most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had been an attempt by Radical Republicans in Congress to protect the civil rights of African Americans from infringement. This series of cases received much attention in both the black and white press and were, in fact, primarily responsible for the spread of segregation in the United States following Reconstruction, in the late 19th century.
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed a law that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, several black and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to the repeal of that law. They eventually persuaded Homer Plessy, an octoroon (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent), to test it. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans to Covington. The railroad company had been informed already as to Plessy's racial lineage, and after Plessy had taken a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately.
Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish, despite his objections that the Louisiana law was in violation of the Constitution of the United States. He was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine.
Eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Plessy was represented by Albion Tourgée, a prominent lawyer of the day, and Samuel F. Phillips, while the defendant, Judge John Ferguson of the Louisiana court, was represented by Alexander Porter Morse.
Tourgée built his case upon violations of Plessy's rights under the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and the equal protection of those rights, against the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Tourgee argued that the reputation of being a white man was "property," which, by the law, implied the inferiority of African-Americans as opposed to whites.
Announced on 18 May 1896, the 7-1 decision, with one abstention, was in favor of the defendant, John H. Ferguson. Justice Henry B. Brown delivered the opinion of the court, while Justice David J. Brewer abstained, and Justice John Marshall Harlan made his famous dissent.
In essence, the court rejected Tourgée's argument based on the Thirteenth Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court did not see how the Louisiana law fostered any supposed inferiority of African-Americans, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, as opposed to merely separating them. The justices also ruled that, while the Court could find in favor of and actively promote political equality, it could do nothing to ensure social equality between the races. Moreover, it affirmed the rulings of the Civil Rights Cases and other preceding Supreme Court and lower court decisions.
Justice Harlan, himself a former Kentucky slaveholder, on the other hand, disagreed with the opinion of the majority. He opined that the U.S. Constitution is color-blind and should not make such distinctions based on race, and that such distinctions did, indeed, imply the inferiority of one race to the other. His words dripped with anger at the system that was, piece by piece, denying African-Americans the privileges and rights of citizenship to which the laws of the United States entitled them.
The case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of "separate but equal," which permitted separation of the races, but only as long as facilities for both races were of equal quality. The failure to provide African Americans with genuinely equal facilities and resources worsened in the years after the Plessy decision, thereby depriving African-Americans of their rights, particularly under the Fourteenth Amendment, as citizens of the United States, entitled to the same treatment as any other citizens.
In this sense, while Plessy is a highly significant and deservedly infamous U.S. Supreme Court case that enforced segregation and thus deprived African-Americans of their rights as citizens, it was not the primary reason for segregation, that having already been established as the law by the Civil Rights Cases and other contemporary events. Rather, Plessy merely ratified and continued the move towards segregation begun earlier. While the case received notice in both the black and white presses, the reports of the case were not viewed at the time as particularly significant, especially compared to the attention given to the Civil Rights Cases thirteen years earlier.
Plessy in the Twentieth Century
This ruling was not eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954, as is commonly thought. Plessy dealt with accommodations in railway cars, not schools, and the Warren court ruled that in education separate schools are inherently unequal. However, the spirit of the Warren Court's decision in Brown was contrary to the reasons set forth by the Fuller Court justices in Plessy for their ruling.
Eventually, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Plessy was formally overturned by provisions outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations in Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These laws did not directly challenge the previous decisions of courts that the Reconstruction amendments did not authorize the federal government to pass these laws, but rather were passed on the basis of an expanded reading of the Commerce Clause of the United States constitution.