1896 May 18

Plessy v. Ferguson – “Separate but Equal” Held Constitutional


Plessy v. Ferguson, decided on this day, was the landmark Supreme Court decision that established the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine. The doctrine was not overturned until the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, on May 17, 1954. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railroad with a First Class ticket and sat in the “whites only” section. When he refused to leave the section, he was arrested and then removed from the train. His case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Louisiana’s segregation law.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Court’s decision was the lone dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan, grandfather of Justice John Marshall Harlan, II (March 17, 1955). The senior Harlan denounced the majority opinion and predicted that it would become as infamous as the Dred Scott decision (March 6, 1857), which held that Scott was a slave and therefore not a citizen with a right to bring suit seeking his own freedom from slavery.

The Court: “. . . we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment than the acts of Congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been questioned, or the corresponding acts of state legislatures.”

Justice Harlan’s historic dissent: “But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.  In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a State to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.”

Learn more about the case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1851-1900/1895/1895_210

Visit the historical marker commemorating the story behind the Plessy decision in New Orleans: http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/320#.UiYsixwo75o

Learn more: Thomas Brook, Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (1997)

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