In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a Louisiana law mandating separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites on intrastate railroads was constitutional. This decision provided the legal foundation to justify many other actions by state and local governments to socially separate blacks and whites. Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education.
During the era of Reconstruction, black Americans’ political rights were affirmed by three constitutional amendments and numerous laws passed by Congress. Racial discrimination was attacked on a particularly broad front by the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This legislation made it a crime for an individual to deny “the full and equal enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color.”
In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 act, ruling that the 14th Amendment did not give Congress authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals. Victims of racial discrimination were told to seek relief not from the Federal Government, but from the states. Unfortunately, state governments were passing legislation that codified inequality between the races. Laws requiring the establishment of separate schools for children of each race were most common; however, segregation was soon extended to encompass most public and semi-public facilities.
Beginning with passage of an 1887 Florida law, states began to require that railroads furnish separate accommodations for each race. These measures were unpopular with the railway companies that bore the expense of adding Jim Crow cars. Segregation of the railroads was even more objectionable to black citizens, who saw it as a further step toward the total repudiation of three constitutional amendments. When such a bill was proposed before the Louisiana legislature in 1890, the articulate black community of New Orleans protested vigorously. Nonetheless, despite the presence of 16 black legislators in the state assembly, the law was passed. It required either separate passenger coaches or partitioned coaches to provide segregated accommodations for each race. Passengers were required to sit in the appropriate areas or face a $25 fine or a 20-day jail sentence. Black nurses attending white children were permitted to ride in white compartments, however.
In 1892, a small group of black professionals in New Orleans planned to challenge the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. Their committee appointed Albion Tourgée its legal representative. After successfully leading a test case in which the Louisiana district court declared forced segregation in railroad cars traveling between states to be unconstitutional, the committee was anxious to test the constitutionality of segregation on railroad cars operating solely within a single state. The committee’s strategy was to have someone with mixed blood violate the law, which would allow Tourgée to question the law's arbitrariness. Homer Plessy, a native of south Louisiana who could "pass" as white, agreed to be the test case. The committee arranged with the railroad conductor and with a private detective to detain Plessy until he was arrested. When Plessy appeared before the Louisiana district court, the court ruled that a state had the constitutional power to regulate railroad companies operating solely within its borders and concluded that the Louisiana Separate Car Act was constitutional. The decision was appealed to the state supreme court in 1893 and was appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.
By the time Plessy v. Ferguson arrived at the Supreme Court, Tourgée and his colleagues had solidified their strategy. Tourgée argued that Plessy was denied his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and violated the Thirteenth Amendment by perpetuating the essential features of slavery.
Eight of the nine justices were unconvinced by Tourgée's arguments, and ruled that neither the Thirteenth nor Fourteenth Amendment was applicable in this case. The majority opinion, delivered by Henry Billings Brown, attacked the Thirteenth Amendment claims by distinguishing between political and social equality. According to this distinction, blacks and whites were politically equal (in the sense that they had the same political rights) but socially unequal (blacks were not as socially advanced as whites):
Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.
The majority also attacked Tourgée's Fourteenth Amendment claims by arguing that enforced separation does not "stamp" blacks with the badge of inferiority, because both blacks and whites were treated equally under the law--in the sense that whites were forbidden to sit in a railroad car designated for blacks. In his famous dissenting opinion, John Marshall Harlan attacked the constitutionality of the Louisiana law and argued that while the law may appear to treat blacks and whites equally, "every one knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons." He also stated: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."
Harlan's liberal views on race did not extend to the Chinese. He wrote this biased statement in his dissent: "There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the State and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race."
The majority decision in Plessy v. Ferguson served as the organizing legal justification for racial segregation for over 50 years. Indeed, it was not until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and congressional civil rights acts of the 1950s and 1960s that systematic segregation under state law was ended. In the wake of those Federal actions, many states amended or rewrote their state constitutions to conform to the spirit of the 14th Amendment. But for Homer Plessy the remedies came too late.