Skills worksheet

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The Supreme Court

3. What arguments or potential conse-

quences did the Court fail to consider

in this decision?

4. How did the Court’s decision-making

process differ in Brown v. Board of

Education of Topeka?


Name ___________________________ Class _____________________ Date _______



Decision Making

After Reconstruction, many Southern states passed laws to enforce racial segregation.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, upheld a Louisiana law

segregating railroad passengers by race, thereby establishing the concept of “separate

but equal” accommodations for black and white Americans. The Supreme Court

later reversed this decision in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954. In

the later decision, the Court ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal

and, therefore, violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Read the excerpt below, which is taken from the Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Then, on a separate sheet of paper, answer the questions that follow.

“. . . That [the Louisiana law] does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment,

which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for

crime, is too clear for argument. . . .

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored

races—a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must

always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color—

has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a

state of involuntary servitude. . . .

“. . . as a conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned, . . . [the state of

Louisiana] is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs,

and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort and

the preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this standard, we

cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two

races in public conveyances is unreasonable. . .

“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the

assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race

with a badge of inferiority. . . . The argument also assumes that social prejudices

may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the

negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this

proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be

the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a

voluntary consent of individuals. . . .”

Apply the Skill
1. What issue was addressed by the

Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson?

2. What arguments did the Court use to

support its decision in Plessy v. Fergu-

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