Plessy v. Ferguson

Landmark 1896 Supreme Court Case Legitimized Jim Crow Laws

Photograph of Justice John Marshall Harlan of the US Supreme Court
Justice John Marshall Harlan, who issued a vigorous dissent against the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Library of Congress

The landmark Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson established that the policy of “separate but equal” was legal and states could pass laws requiring segregation of the races.

By declaring that Jim Crow laws were constitutional, the nation’s highest court created an atmosphere of legalized discrimination that endured for nearly six decades. Segregation became common in public facilities including railroad cars, restaurants, hotels, and even restrooms and drinking fountains.

It would not be until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and actions taken during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, that the oppressive legacy of Plessy V. Ferguson passed into history.

Plessy v. Ferguson

On June 7, 1892 a New Orleans shoemaker, Homer Plessy, bought a railroad ticket and sat in a car designated for whites only. Plessy, who was one-eighth black, was working with a group intent on testing the law for the purpose of bringing a court case.

In a car designated for whites only he was asked if he was "colored", he replied that he was. He was told to move to a train car for blacks only, Plessy refused. He was arrested and released on bail the same day. He was later put on trial in a court in New Orleans.

Plessy’s violation of the local law was actually a challenge to a national trend toward laws separating the races. Following the Civil War, three amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th, 14th, and 15th, seemed to promote racial equality.

However, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments were ignored as many states, particularly in the South, passed laws which ordered segregation of the races.

Louisiana, in 1890, had passed a law, known as the Separate Car Act, requiring “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” on the railroads within the state.

A committee of New Orleans citizens of color decided to challenge the law.

After Homer Plessy was arrested, his local attorney defended him, claiming that the law violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. The local judge, John H. Ferguson, overruled Plessy's position that the law was unconstitutional. Judge Ferguson found him guilty of the local law.

When Plessy lost his initial court case, his appeal made it to the US Supreme Court. The Court ruled 7-1 that the Louisiana law requiring that the races be separated did not violate the 13th or 14th amendments to the Constitution as long as the facilities were deemed equal.

Two remarkable characters played major roles in the case: attorney and activist Albion Winegar Tourgée, who argued Plessy’s case, and Justice John Marshall Harlan of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was the sole dissenter from the court’s decision.

Activist and Attorney, Albion W. Tourgée

An attorney who came to New Orleans to help Plessy, Albion W. Tourgée, was widely known as an activist for civil rights. An immigrant from France, he had fought in the Civil War, and was wounded at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

After the war, Tourgée became a lawyer and served for a time as a judge in the Reconstruction government of North Carolina.

A writer as well as an attorney, Tourgée wrote a novel about life in the South after the war. He also was involved in a number of publishing ventures and activities focused on attaining equal status under the law for African Americans.

Tourgée was able to appeal Plessy's case first to the supreme court of Louisiana, and then ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a four-year delay, Tourgée argued the case in Washington on April 13, 1896.

A month later, on May 18, 1896, the court ruled 7-1 against Plessy. One justice did not participate, and the sole dissenting voice was Justice John Marshall Harlan.

Justice John Marshall Harlan of the U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Harlan had been born in Kentucky in 1833 and grew up in a slave-owning family. He served as a Union officer in the Civil War, and following the war he became involved in politics, aligned with the Republican Party.

He was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877.

On the highest court, Harlan developed a reputation for dissenting. He believed the races should be treated equally before the law. And his dissent in the Plessy case could be considered his masterpiece in reasoning against the prevailing racial attitudes of his era.

One particular line in his dissent was quoted often in the 20th century: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."

In his dissent, Harlan also wrote: 

"The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It can-not be justified upon any legal grounds."

The day after the decision was announced, May 19, 1896, the New York Times published a brief article about the case consisting of only two paragraphs. The second paragraph was devoted to Harlan's dissent:

"Mr. Justice Harlan announced a very vigorous dissent, saying that he saw nothing but mischief in all such laws. In his view of the case, no power in the land had the right to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. It would be just as reasonable and proper, he said, for States to pass laws requiring separate cars to be furnished for Catholics and Protestants, or for descendants of the Teutonic race and those of the Latin race."

While the decision had far-reaching implications, it was not considered especially newsworthy when it was announced in May 1896. Newspapers of the day tended to bury the story, printing only very brief mentions of the decision, perhaps because the Supreme Court's ruling reinforced attitudes which were prevalent at the time. Yet the impact of Plessy v. Ferguson was felt by millions of Americans for decades.