In Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, the Supreme Court gave its approval to the doctrine of “separate but equal.” (“Doctrine” is a term often used to refer to a set of legal principles originating in case law.) Under this doctrine governments were allowed to require segregation of racial minorities, despite language in the Constitution that demands “equal protection of the law.” Unfortunately, Plessy v. Ferguson remained a valid precedent until 1954. (Keep in mind, however, that the Supreme Court does not make the laws. The Supreme Court ruling in Plessy did not itself require the segregation of the races--the Court's ruling allowed the states to pass segregation laws if they chose to do so. Many states enforced segregation laws after 1896, but some did not.)
Like many cases, Plessy v. Ferguson came to the Supreme Court from a state supreme court. In 1890, the Louisiana state legislature passed a law requiring racial segregation on railway cars. Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, was arrested for attempting to sit in a railway car assigned to whites. He argued that the law was unconstitutional, asking the courts to exercise their power of judicial review and strike it down. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the law, and Plessy filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. (Technically, the case came to the Supreme Court on what was then called a writ of error, today it would have come up on a writ of certiorari.)
A few technical notes about the case. John Ferguson was a criminal court judge who was presiding over Plessy’s case. Plessy’s name comes first because he initiated the appeal to the Supreme Court. Typically, therefore, the party who’s name comes first is the one who lost at the level before the Supreme Court. The official legal citation for the case is Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) . That means the case was printed in volume 163 of the official United States Reports, on page 537. Further numbers in citations refer to other published versions of Supreme Court decisions. For example, 16 S.Ct. 1138 is the citation for Plessy in the Supreme Court Reporter, which we have in our library.
Plessy lost his case in the Supreme Court by a vote of 7-1. (One member of the Court did not participate for some reason.) Chief Justice Melville Fuller assigned Justice Henry Brown the task of writing the majority opinion. Below is an extensive excerpt from Brown’s opinion. As you read it, notice the legal claims advanced by Plessy and how the court disposed of them. Pay particular attention to the narrow definition of legal equality that Brown uses, and the many things it does not cover.
The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was not unanimous. Despite having been a slave owner himself, Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan wrote a vigorous, and now famous, dissenting opinion.