Literature Study GuidesPlessy V Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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United States Supreme Court


May 18, 1896


Primary Source


Law, U.S. Supreme Court Case

At a Glance

  • Plessy v. Ferguson challenged the constitutionality of discriminatory laws against African Americans but resulted in federal approval of the "separate but equal" principle. It ushered in an era of segregation that was legally insurmountable until the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public education unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. The ruling opened the door for new court challenges against segregation over the next decade. Desegregation in public spaces was not fully accomplished until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • In the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision, the justices voted seven to one to uphold segregation. Writing the majority opinion, Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown (1836–1913) argued the Louisiana state law that mandated the provision of separate railroad cars for white and black passengers did not suggest African Americans were inferior in a legal sense. In his minority dissent, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) argued segregation laws promoted the idea African Americans were inferior to white people. He said these laws harmed personal liberty and were therefore unconstitutional. One justice, David J. Brewer (1837–1910), who was absent during the hearings because of his daughter's death, abstained.
  • With the court's tacit approval, the white majority in the South could legally justify acts of segregation for years to come.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson exemplifies the systematic denial of African American civil rights even after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. It also helped circumvent the 14th Amendment that provided equal protection under the law. This court ruling justified the passing of state Jim Crow laws, allowing "separate but equal" facilities such as restrooms, seating in restaurants, and public water fountains.


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