Supreme Court Holds Segregated Railway Dining Cars Illegal
In Henderson v. United States, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated railway dining cars were in violation of regulations requiring equal service under the Interstate Commerce Act, as interpreted by an earlier Supreme Court decision. The Court did not, however, address the fundamental issue of whether the principle of “separate but equal” violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
This was an early case that set the Court — and the nation — on the road to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, which declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in Morgan v. Commonwealth v. Virginia, on June 3, 1946, declared unconstitutional a Virginia law that segregated interstate bus travel. That case also did not address the broader issues of racial segregation in interstate travel. The pivotal event on that issue was the famous 1961 Freedom Ride that began on May 4, 1961.
The Court: “Under the rules of an interstate railroad, dining cars are divided so as to allot ten tables exclusively to white passengers and one table exclusively to Negro passengers, and a curtain separates the table reserved for Negroes from the others. Under these rules, only four Negro passengers may be served at one time, and then only at the table reserved for Negroes. Other Negroes who present themselves are compelled to await a vacancy at that table, although there may be many vacancies elsewhere in the diner. The rules impose a like deprivation upon white passengers whenever more than 40 of them seek to be served at the same time and the table reserved for Negroes is vacant.
“Held: these rules and practices violate § 3(1) of the Interstate Commerce Act, which makes it unlawful for a railroad in interstate commerce to subject any particular person . . . to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever.”
Learn more about the case: Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)