Lesson Plan - Get It!
Because it was one of the first court cases to deal with civil rights after the Civil War, Plessy v. Ferguson challenged the extreme segregation that was forming in the South.
Section 1 of this amendment reads:
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Passing in 1868, the 14th Amendment included African American men in the U.S. Constitution for the first time.
Anyone who was a citizen of the United States could not be discriminated against based on race. However, this was not accepted in the South.
The idea of separate but equal institutions was popular around the country as a way to keep Black people away from White people. However, nowhere was this practice more corrosive than in the South.
Former Confederate states were only permitted representation in Congress if they accepted the 14th and 15th Amendments; however, they sought to systematically eliminate as many advancements as these amendments made possible.
Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws were those passed in Southern states explicitly to stop Black men from exercising their newfound constitutional rights.
For more details, watch Jim Crow Laws in the South
Although these laws were blatant attempts to circumvent the 14th and 15th Amendments, this system of disenfranchisement was allowed to persist.
Homer Plessy was 1/8 African American. While this may not seem like an important distinction in modern times, it was still enough to consider someone Black in the 1890s.
Because of this, Homer Plessy was required to sit in the African American train car. However, in an attempt to challenge the equal nature of separating trains, he boarded the White train car.
After being arrested for violating Louisiana's Separate-Car Act, he challenged the constitutionality of the separate but equal doctrine.
Separate but equal laws were used to segregate Blacks from Whites nationwide. However, in reality, the separate buildings, facilities, and public transportation for African Americans were not equal.
The facilities Black Americans used were given much less funding and, therefore, were usually in much worse condition. This is specifically what Homer Plessy was challenging.
Unlike the recent 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which launched the nation toward equality, this 1896 court case solidified the practice of Jim Crow segregation.
The Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was constitutional, while also supporting the underlying assumption that the institutions were of equal quality.
Read this excerpt from Justice Harlan's lone dissent to this ruling:
"Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white people from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. ... The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches. No one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary.
- Is Justice Harlan completely rejecting segregation?
- Or is he merely arguing that laws specifically made for White comfort are unconstitutional?
It was not Harlan's dissent that mattered, however. In this 8-1 decision, the court's upholding of segregation served another purpose.
If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Homer Plessy, it is not certain that the Southern states would have respected the massive shift away from Jim Crow laws.
And, if the South had not respected the court's decision, it would have been up to the war-weary federal government to enforce the ruling.
Although no one knows what would have happened if the court had ruled differently, the preservation of authority in the South was a major consideration to be taken into account at the time.
Head over to the Got It? section to look at how far-reaching this case was.