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Plessy vs Ferguson

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Plessy vs Ferguson

Normally, getting arrested is not exactly on somebody’s to-do list. However, in 1892, Homer Plessy’s singular goal was to get arrested and he had a whole group behind him making sure it would happen. He was going to get his day in court so that he could try and help defend the rights of Black citizens across the country.

Plessy vs Ferguson Definition

Plessy vs Ferguson US Supreme Court StudySmarterThe United States Supreme Court, commons.wikimedia.org

Plessy vs Ferguson was a Supreme Court case decided in 1896. The case centered around the Louisiana Separate Car Act which required separate railway cars for Black and white passengers. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legally allowed segregation.

Plessy vs Ferguson Background

Before we discuss the facts of the case, it is important to understand the context.

Plessy vs Ferguson Background: End of Reconstruction

After the Reconstruction Era formally ended, Southern Democrats regained control of their local and state governments. Without Northern supervision, they enacted a series of discriminatory laws called Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws were an attempt to strip Black citizens of their rights granted by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877)

the period after the Civil War during which Northern Republicans worked to restructure Southern governments and form a plan for their re-entry into the Union.

Plessy vs Ferguson Background: Louisiana Separate Car Act

The Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 is a typical example of a Jim Crow law. It required railway companies to create separate railway cars for Black and white passengers, legally mandating discrimination and segregation. The law included punishments for passengers and railway companies/employees that did not comply.

After the Separate Car Act passed, a group of concerned citizens came together and formed the New Orleans Citizens’ Committee. They wished to legally challenge the Separate Car Act. But first, they needed to find someone willing to get arrested and incite a case.

Homer Plessy, already working as an activist for education reform, agreed to help the New Orleans Citizens’ Committee in their case. He was only one-eighth African and appeared white—a conductor wouldn’t know his heritage if they didn't ask. They believed this would make the law seem especially arbitrary in court.

Plessy vs Ferguson Case Summary

The New Orleans Citizens’ Committee orchestrated the entire arrest in 1892. They enlisted a conductor to confront Homer Plessy sitting in a “whites-only” railway car and ask him to leave. They also hired a private detective to ensure that Plessy was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act.

Following his arrest, Homer Plessy appeared in court before Judge John H. Ferguson to fight his charge. Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, they claimed it violated the Thirteenth Amendment by putting Black citizens back into the social conditions of slavery.

The Equal Protection Clause

part of the Fourteenth Amendment that requires the law to treat all citizens equally, regardless of race.

Judge Ferguson denied their arguments and convicted Homer Plessy for violating the Separate Car Act. Plessy then filed a petition against Judge Ferguson for violating his rights. Because of this, the New Orleans Citizens’ Committee was able to get their argument in front of the Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson.

Plessy vs Ferguson Ruling

In the four years since Homer Plessy’s arrest, conditions for Black citizens across the country had deteriorated rapidly. After hearing arguments in 1896, The Supreme Court Justices aligned with the mood of the country and ruled against Homer Plessy in a 7-1 decision. They decided that separate accommodations were perfectly legal so long as they were equal in condition, creating the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Equal Protection Clause in Plessy vs Ferguson

As we discussed earlier, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Equal Protection Clause. While that makes perfect sense to us today, the Supreme Court Justices saw things a bit differently in 1896.

The Equal Protection Clause required that all citizens be treated equally by the law, but nowhere did it say that all citizens had to be integrated to ensure equal conditions. Because of this, the Supreme Court felt that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional.

Only Justice John Harlan disagreed. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote:

Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

The “separate but equal” doctrine essentially legalized state-mandated segregation.

Plessy vs Ferguson Impact

The “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy vs Ferguson became the legal precedent for over 60 years. This meant that every time a similar case of segregation came up, judges in courts across the country would look to Plessy vs Ferguson to guide their decisions. As a result, discriminatory Jim Crow laws across the South were allowed to stand, and even more were created. There were even laws enforcing segregation in the North.

Of course, segregation did not lend itself to equality. Accommodations for white citizens were far often better than those for Black citizens. A political cartoon from 1904 highlights the reality of the Separate Car Act:

Plessy vs Ferguson Railway Car Political Cartoon StudySmarterExcerpt from a political cartoon by John McCutcheon, commons.wikimedia.org

It took many decades, but in 1954, Brown v Board of Education set a new precedent by declaring segregation in schools unconstitutional. As a result of the new precedent, Jim Crow laws across the South lost their standing. The decision in Plessy vs Ferguson was essentially overturned.

Plessy vs Ferguson - Key takeaways

  • Homer Plessy, backed by the New Orleans Citizens' Committee, violated the Separate Car Act in 1892 by sitting in a "whites-only" railway car and was arrested.
  • He appeared before Judge John H. Ferguson who found him guilty. Plessy filed a petition against Judge Ferguson that went before the Supreme Court in 1896.
  • Plessy's lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The Supreme Court ruled against Plessy in a 7-1 decision. They established the "separate but equal" doctrine that essentially legalized segregation.
  • Justice John Harlan was the only judge to dissent, believing that separate conditions could never truly be equal.
  • Plessy vs Ferguson became the precedent, affirming the legality of discriminatory laws across the country. It was not overturned until Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

Frequently Asked Questions about Plessy vs Ferguson

In Plessy vs Ferguson, The Supreme Court decided against Homer Plessy in a 7-1 decision. 

Plessy vs Ferguson was important because it established the "separate but equal" doctrine.

The Supreme Court ruled on Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896.

Plessy vs Ferguson was the United States Supreme Court case that established the "separate but equal" doctrine. 

Plessy vs Ferguson established the "separate but equal" doctrine and became the legal precedent for racial segregation cases. 

Final Plessy vs Ferguson Quiz

Question

When was Plessy vs Ferguson decided?

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Answer

1896

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Question

Which law was in question in Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

The Louisiana Separate Car Act

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Question

What two amendments did Plessy's lawyer claim the Separate Car Act violated?

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Answer

The Thirteenth Amendment

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Question

 What important doctrine did Plessy vs Ferguson establish?

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Answer

the "separate but equal" doctrine

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Question

What was the ruling in Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

7-1 against Plessy

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Question

Who was the dissenting judge in Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

Justice John Marshall Harlan

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Question

What court case essentially overturned Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

Brown vs Board of Education

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Question

When was Plessy vs Ferguson overturned?

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Answer

1934

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Question

What was the name of the group backing Homer Plessy in Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

The New Orleans Citizens' Committee

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Question

What was the argument of the dissenting opinion in Plessy vs Ferguson?

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Answer

Segregated conditions could never be truly equal, therefore segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. 

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