Plessy+v+Furguson+_1896_.

Plessy+v+Furguson+_1896_. - I Plessy v. Ferguson By the...

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Unformatted text preview: I Plessy v. Ferguson By the 1890’s, the tide was running strongly against the Negro in the southern states. Disfranchisement was widespread, and the legislatures enacted the whole apparatus supporting segregation as a means of social separation and control. In 1890, Louisiana came full circle from its Reconstruction position and required separate railroad accommodations for the races. Plessy, an octoroon, chal- lenged the law as a violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. In the case which followed, the Supreme Court in efl‘ect put its imprimatur upon the “separate but equal” doctrine, and its opinion became the basic precedent for sustaining and justifying similar legislation. Informally, the justices acknowledged “sociologi— cal” considerations as readily as their successors sixty years later. As before, ex-slaveholder Justice Harlan alone protested against the Court’s legalization of racism. Justice Brown delivered the opinion of the Court. his case turns upon the constitutionality of an act of the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana, Passed in 1890, providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. . . The first section of the statute enacts “that all railway companies carry- ing passengers in'their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, byproviding two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommoda— tions: Provided, That this section shall not be construed to apply to street railroads. No person or persons, shall be admitted to occupy seats in coaches, other than, the ones, assigned, to them on account of the race they belong to.” . . The information filed in the criminal District Court charged in sub’ stance that Plessy, being a passenger between two stations within the State of Louisiana, was assigned by officers of the company to the coach used for the race to which he belonged, but he insisted upon going into a coach used by the race to which he did not belong. Neither in the information nor plea was his particular race or color averred. The petition for the writ of prohibition averred that petitioner was seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; that the mixture of 163 (1.3. 537 (1896) 216 Plessy v. Ferguson 217 colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every right, privilege and, immunity secured to citizens of the United States of the white race; and that,.upon- such theory, he took possession of a vacant seat in a coach Where passengers of the white race were ac— commodated, and was ordered by the conductor to vacate said coach and take'a seat in another assigned to persons of the colored race, and having refused to comply with such demand he was forcibly ejected with the aid of a police officer, and imprisoned in the parish jail to answer a charge of having violated the above act. v The constitutionality of this act is attacked upon the ground that it conflicts both with the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits certain restrictive legislation on the part of the States. ‘ 1. That it does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument. . . . . . . The proper construction of the 14th amendment was first called to the attention of this court in the Slaughter-house cases, 16 Wall. 36, which involved, however, not a question of race, but one of exclusive privileges. The case did not call for any expression of opinion as to the exact rights it was intended to secure to the colored race, but it was said generally that its main purpose was to establish the citizenship of the negro; to give definitions of citizenship of the United States and of the States, and to protect from the hostile legislation of the States the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, as distinguished from those of citizens of the States. . The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a com— mingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws per— mitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legis— lative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced. One of the earliest of these cases is that of Roberts v. City of Boston, 5 Cush. 198 [1849], in which the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the general school committee of Boston had power to make pro- vision for the instruction of colored children in separate schools estab- 218 The Freedman and the Constitution lished exclusively for them, and to Prohibit their attendance upon the other schools. “The great principle,” said Chief Justice Shaw, p. 206, “ad- vanced by the learned and eloquent advocate for the Plaintiff,” (Mr. Charles Sumner,) “is, that by the constitution and laws of Massachusetts, all Persons without distinction of age or sex, birth or color, origin or con- dition, are equal before the law. . . . But, when this great Principle comes to be applied to the actual and various conditions of Persons in society, it will not warrant the assertion, that men and women are legally clothed with the same civil and Political powers, and that children and adults are legally to have the same functions and be subject to the same treat- ment; but only that the rights of all, as they are settled and regulated by law, are equally entitled to the paternal consideration and Protection of the law for their maintenance and security.” It was held that the Powers of the committee extended to the establishment of separate schools for children of diiferent ages, sexes and colors, and that they might also establish special schools for poor and neglected children, who have become too old to attend the Primary school, and yet have not acquired the rudiments of learning, to enable them to enter the ordinary schools. Similar laws have been enacted by Congress under its general power of legislation over the District of Columbia . . . as well as by the legisla- tures of many of the States, and have been generally, if not uniformly, sustained by the courts. . . So far, then, as a conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question Whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and with respect to this there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature. In determining the ques- tion of reasonableness it is at liberty to act with reference to the estab- lished 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 I 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. We consider the underlying fallacy of the Plaintiff’s argument to con- sist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The argument necessarily as- sumes that if, as has been more than once the case, and is not unlikely to be so again, the colored race should become the dominant power in the state legislature, and should enact a law in precisely similar terms, it Plessy v. Ferguson 219 would thereby relegate the white race to an inferior position. We imagine that the white race, at least, would not acquiesce in this assumption. The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legis— lation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposi- tion. 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. . . . Legislation is power- less to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuat- ing the difficulties 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 upon the same plane. . . Justice Harlan dissenting. While there may be in Louisiana persons of different races who are not citizens of the United States, the words in the act, “white and colored races,” necessarily include all citizens of the United States of both races residing in that State. So that we have before us a state enactment that compels, under penalties, the separation of the two races in railroad pas— senger coaches, and makes it a crime for a citizen of either. race to enter a coach that has been assigned to citizens of the other race. Thus the State regulates the use of a public highway by citizens of the United States solely upon the basis of race. However apparent the injustice of such legislation may be, we have only to consider whether it is consistent with the Constitution of the United States. . . In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the Constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights. Every true man has pride of race, and under appropriate circumstances when the rights of others, his equals before the law, are not to be aflected, it is his privilege to express such pride and to take such action based upon it as to him seems proper. But I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to the race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved. Indeed, such legislation, as that here in ques- tion, is inconsistent not only With that equality of rights which pertains to citizenship, National and State, but with the personal liberty enjoyed by every one Within the United States. . . . The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in 220 The Freedman and the Constitution power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. 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. In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case. It was adjudged in that case that the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country and sold as slaves were not included nor intended to be included under the word “citizens” in the Constitu— tion, and could not claim any of the rights and privileges which that in— strument provided for and secured to citizens of the United States; that at the time of the adoption of the Constitution they were “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained sub— ject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.” 19 How. 393, 404. The recent amendments of the Constitution, it was supposed, had eradicated these principles from our institutions. But it seems that we have yet, in some of the States, a dominant race——a superior class of citizens, which assumes to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race. The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in View when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the States in which they re— spectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the States are forbidden to abridge. Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the in~ terests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under .the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create \. Plessy v. Ferguson 221 and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enact- ments, which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana. . . . 'If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will be infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoy— ment of civil rights upon the basis of race. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow- citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” ac— commodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done. . . . I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of free- dom; to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens upon the basis of race; and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community called the People of the United States, for whom, and by whom through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is in- consistent With the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by Con- gressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. . . . ...
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Plessy+v+Furguson+_1896_. - I Plessy v. Ferguson By the...

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