Plessy v. Ferguson | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Plessy v. Ferguson | Summary & Analysis



Louisiana as Part of the Jim Crow South

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery in 1865. The 14th Amendment gave equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and emancipated slaves (freed after the Civil War, 1861–65) in 1868. However, in the southern states, many discriminatory Jim Crow laws were passed between 1877 and the 1950s to segregate African Americans. The term Jim Crow refers to a minstrel character and came to be used in a negative way to describe African Americans and the practice of segregation and denial of voting rights. One such Jim Crow law was the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. This law required that railroads provide "equal but separate" cars for white and African American passengers.

Louis A. Martinet (1849–1917), an African American attorney, doctor, and newspaper editor, headed up the "Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law." Martinet enlisted the help of Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905), a white civil rights activist. Martinet and Tourgée organized the details of the arrest that formed the basis of the Plessy v. Ferguson case.

Following one failed attempt at a test case, the pair chose 30-year-old shoemaker Homer Plessy (1863–1925). Plessy passed as white, although he was octoroon (one-eighth African American) and thus considered African American. Martinet and Tourgée believed the Separate Car Act infringed upon the civil rights of African Americans and was therefore unconstitutional. The case made it before the U.S. Supreme Court nearly four years after Plessy was arrested (1892) in Louisiana for riding in a first-class white train car.

A Planned Act of Defiance

Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown provides the particulars of the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. This law mandates African Americans and whites must be seated in separate but equal accommodations or be fined or imprisoned. The case originated in the criminal court for New Orleans and was heard by Judge John H. Ferguson (1838–1915). The Supreme Court of Louisiana subsequently upheld Ferguson's judgment.

Brown then chronicles the details of the incident. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a citizen of mixed race and a resident of Louisiana, bought a first-class train ticket. He was scheduled to ride the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans to Covington. Plessy sat in the white first-class coach. The conductor asked him to move to a coach designated for African Americans. Plessy refused, was arrested, ejected from the train, and taken to jail.

Finally, Brown lays out the particulars of Ferguson's District Court trial. Plessy was charged in violation of the Separate Car Act, but Plessy argued this act was unconstitutional. The court overruled this plea.

The Separate Car Act

Justice Brown was known to consider the construction of argument over the subjective intent behind it. Therefore, to begin his majority opinion, Brown looks carefully at the language of the Separate Car Act. Brown quotes the first section of the law. It requires railways to have two or more cars per train (or a partition) to accommodate segregation of the races. It further states no one is allowed to sit in areas designated for the other race. Brown then quotes the second section of the law. It gives train officials the authority to assign seats based on race and imposes a fine or jail time for refusal. Finally, Brown quotes the third section. It imposes penalties on the railway companies for noncompliance. Brown notes the exception for nurses caring for children of another race.

Brown states that Plessy was assigned by the conductor to an African American car, but he refused to sit there. He further notes that while the District Court failed to assert Plessy's race, the appeal asserted Plessy was one-eighth African American. The appeal argues that Plessy passed for white, so he should be able to sit in the white car. But, because he refused to move at the conductor's request, Plessy was jailed for failing to comply with the Separate Car Act.

The 13th Amendment Does Not Apply

In his appeal, Plessy refuted the law's constitutionality, saying it goes against the 13th and 14th Amendments. To Brown, it is clear the law does not violate the 13th Amendment. Therefore he does not need to argue this point.

Brown then gives a brief overview of the court's understanding of the 13th Amendment. The interpretation is that slavery constitutes a person being forced to serve another and a slave has no legal right to self-determination. Brown brings up the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), which sought constitutional protection for business purposes. Brown advises that the justices interpreted the 13th Amendment to prohibit any kind of involuntary service from any heritage, including Mexican and Chinese. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not address issues of citizenship. The amendment did not guarantee equal rights to the freed slaves. Because the 13th Amendment did not offer protection from certain Southern laws created to unduly burden African Americans, the 14th Amendment was adopted. Brown stresses that if the Louisiana law could be considered unconstitutional, it would be in conflict with the 14th Amendment rather than the 13th.

In further civil rights cases, it was determined that mere discrimination against African Americans cannot be considered slavery. Brown argues that the Separate Car Act merely creates a legal distinction between the skin color of two races and does not attempt to impose slavery. Therefore, the justices do not understand Plessy's reasoning for invoking the 13th Amendment.

The Purpose of the 14th Amendment

Brown states that the 14th Amendment prohibits states from enacting or enforcing laws that conflict with federal rights to life, liberty, and property. He further notes the court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment as it applied to the Slaughterhouse Cases. He maintains it was decided that the 14th Amendment pertained solely to protecting African Americans. He also says the court did not elaborate on the exact rights African Americans were intended to have.

Brown then delivers his thesis: the 14th Amendment provided for legal equality of the races, but it could not be expected to abolish social discrimination. Brown claims segregation laws do not necessarily imply that one race is superior to the other. Brown believes state legislatures are within their rights to create separate spaces for African Americans and white people. He uses the prevalence of segregated schools as an example of a state's right to create separate facilities.

Segregated School Cases and Intermarriage

To support his argument, Brown brings up previous rulings having to do with segregated schools. Brown's first example involves the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upholding a school committee's right to create separate schools by race. The judge in this case declared the Constitution provided that all persons are equal in legal theory but not in actual practice. What he means is that the Constitution entitles everyone to equal consideration before the law but not to equal treatment. The court ruled the school committee could also create separate schools for children by age, gender, class, and performance levels. Brown goes on to list numerous other cases in other states and the District of Columbia where similar laws were upheld.

In the following paragraph, Brown considers intermarriage. He points out that laws prohibiting marriage between African Americans and white people may technically interfere with their rights. However, courts have recognized such laws as within the authority of the states.

Political Equality versus Social Segregation

Brown states the U.S. Supreme Court has frequently made a distinction between laws limiting political equality and laws permitting segregation. Brown cites Strauder v. West Virginia (1880), which ruled race-based exclusion from juries is a violation of the 14th Amendment. Brown contends that because this exclusion implied African Americans were legally inferior and reduced their security, it was a move toward making them servile again. He continues to list a number of similar cases.

Brown then compares two railway cases: Railroad Company v. Brown (1873) and Hall v. De Cuir (1877). In the former, the law states no person should be excluded based on color. Brown acknowledges that the court clearly meant African Americans could sit in the same cars as white people. The court did not mean that African Americans should be discriminated against by being placed in separate cars. In the latter, the court ruled it unconstitutional to exclude passengers based on their color because the company was involved in interstate commerce. Only Congress can regulate commerce among states. However, the court, in Hall v. De Cuir, expressed it had no opinion on the law's constitutionality in "any other respect." This means the court declined to give an opinion on segregation. By referencing Hall v. De Cuir, Brown is building toward his argument for supporting segregation.

Federal Power versus States Power

Brown then discusses the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). This refers to a group of five cases in which the majority opinion found an act of Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, to be unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act provided for all citizens to enjoy public facilities equally. However, Brown states that the court struck down the act. This was because the 14th Amendment was intended only to prohibit legislation by the states that would rob African Americans of their political equality.

Brown then points out Justice Joseph P. Bradley's (1813–92) interpretation of the 14th Amendment and why the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. As a federal entity, Congress does not have the power to legislate on state matters. The 14th Amendment merely allows the federal government to provide "modes of relief." This means the federal government cannot create laws to secure equal enjoyment of privileges within the states. The federal government can only act as a countermeasure against politically discriminatory state laws.

The Interstate Commerce Clause

Next Brown turns to a ruling in a very similar case: Louisville, New Orleans & c. Railway v. Mississippi (1890). It also concerned equal but separate train cars. It was different because it charged the railway company with failing to provide proper seating in accordance with the Mississippi law. The court considered only if a state had the power to dictate accommodations within that state's borders and decided that it did. The court did not find Mississippi's law to be in violation of Congress's interstate commerce clause, though the train traveled a route between several states.

Brown has established a court precedent for the handling of intrastate commerce. He points out that Plessy v. Ferguson concerns a local line that does not leave Louisiana's borders. He then lists a number of cases wherein segregation on local transportation was upheld as constitutional.

Exemption of Liability

Brown moves on to counter the possible argument that the Separate Car Act is unconstitutional. This is because Louisiana does not have the power to protect the railway company from the actions of its officers. Brown concedes that by allowing railway officers to assign passengers to a certain coach, the law gives them the power to determine a passenger's race. This might have been a consideration. However, Brown will not make an issue of it because Plessy did not, instead only challenging the legality of enforced separation requirement on the railways.

The Reputation of a White Man and the Public Good

Brown next attacks Plessy's assertion that his passing as white entitles him to the reputation of a white man. Brown denies that reputation can be considered property. Even if it could, Brown argues, Plessy is not in fact white and, therefore, not entitled to a white man's reputation.

Brown goes on to attempt to discredit Plessy's legal team for proposing a slippery slope argument. Brown seems to find it preposterous that laws providing for segregation by races in train cars might lead to other oppressive laws. In this passage he is supporting the idea that creating segregated spaces is done for the public good. In addition Brown proposes that segregation is a reasonable exercise of the police power of a state. He says segregation is not intended to annoy or oppress African Americans.

By way of support Brown offers a case in which the court found a local law to be unreasonably discriminatory and therefore illegal. The case in question is Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). This case involved the city of San Francisco imprisoning a Chinese national for running a laundry business against their ordinance. The court found the law violated the Constitution because it granted arbitrary power to officials to determine who could run a business. Brown then goes on to list similar cases at the state level.

The Question of Reasonable Exercise of Power

Brown contends that as far as the 14th Amendment is concerned, the court must foremost consider the reasonability of the Separate Car Act. He contends that because segregation promotes public peace, it cannot be considered unreasonable. Brown's further argument is that the creation of segregated schools in the District of Columbia was not challenged. Therefore the Separate Car Act should not be challenged either.

Legislation Cannot Overcome Social Prejudices

Brown challenges Plessy's view that segregation implies that African Americans are inferior. Brown claims only African Americans see it that way. He rejects the notion that laws have the power to create social equality. He says African Americans and white people must voluntarily agree to share spaces. As support for this opinion, he uses a quotation from the decision in the Court of Appeals of New York in People v. Gallagher (1883). That court ruled an African American girl's attendance at a school designated for white people would go against the prevailing attitudes of the community. The court defined the government's responsibility as securing political equality. Beyond that, the court ruled, government does not have the power to force social justice.

In his conclusion Brown reaffirms his belief that legislation only offers equality in regard to political rights. He argues one race's social inferiority is beyond the scope of the Constitution. Brown does concede that what constitutes someone as African American is not consistently dealt with across the states. However, Brown deems this question irrelevant to the proceedings and states Louisiana may decide for itself whether Plessy is white or African American.

A Fiery Dissent

Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan also begins his dissenting opinion by reiterating the language of the Separate Car Act. He focuses particularly on the language of Section 3. Harlan deems it unjust for a state to regulate the use of public infrastructure based on race. However, he acknowledges the court's job is to test laws for constitutionality and not pass judgment on injustices.

To support his assertion of the railroad being public infrastructure, Harlan points to several cases in which the court determined this to be so. Railway companies may be private, but the services they offer are for the public good. Therefore Harlan believes all should have equal access to this good.

Civil Rights for All

Harlan asserts that while questions of race may motivate the decisions of private citizens, public authorities should be color-blind. He believes the 13th Amendment frees men from oppressive laws that act as "badges of slavery." Harlan reasserts the majority opinion that the 14th Amendment was enacted to rectify the inadequacies of the 13th Amendment. Harlan declares that if these two amendments are practiced according to their intended purposes, all civil rights should be protected for all citizens.

To further prove the Constitution's intent to secure color-blind freedoms, Harlan brings up the 15th Amendment. It was ratified in 1870 to give the right to vote to men, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Harlan concedes the wording of the amendment is stated in negative terms. However, he believes they imply a positive right toward full and equal enjoyment of life. He reiterates Brown's argument concerning juries being a political right.

Discrimination and the Separate Car Act

Next Harlan moves on to dissecting Louisiana's law. Harlan points out the majority opinion accepted the "equal accommodation" clause as pertaining to both white people and African Americans.

Harlan then goes on to define personal liberty as being able to move freely as one chooses without hindrance. He believes the Separate Car Act violates this personal liberty. He distinguishes between requiring railways to provide equal accommodations and preventing citizens from traveling together on public transport. Harlan suggests the former is a reasonable law while the latter is as unreasonable as requiring the races to walk on separate sides of the street, for example.

The Question of Reasonability

Harlan's musings about what regulations can be considered reasonable are meant to point out the arbitrariness of racial segregation. If there are no regulations segregating citizens on public transport by religion, for example, then why should race come into question? Harlan goes on to consider the court's true purpose within the three branches of government. He seems to prescribe to the view that the courts are meant to support the constitutionality of legislation without inserting their personal views. He warns against giving the judicial branch too much latitude in deciding the reasonability of laws. For Harlan the court must consider and respect the intent of laws, but laws should be struck down when they intend to harm personal liberty.

No Superior Race

Harlan asserts the white race may well be superior as seen from a social standpoint, but under the Constitution there is no superior class of citizen. "Our Constitution is color-blind," Harlan declares. He deems the majority opinion unjust to deny personal liberty based on race.

Further Harlan predicts this tacit approval of segregation will embolden white discrimination against African Americans. Harlan believes the races must find a way to live together in harmony. He says this will certainly not be accomplished by creating laws that deem African Americans so inferior they cannot occupy white spaces. Harlan debunks Brown's argument that social equality cannot be achieved to justify the Separate Car Act. That argument ignores that there is no social equality in juries, in political life, and in the voting box. However, he says, equal rights have been protected in these cases.

The Lesser Evil

Harlan warns the harm of segregation by race will far outweigh the temporary discomfort of white people. He then makes a slippery slope argument. By allowing partitions in trains, he says, the court will make way for partitions in jury boxes. Harlan does not wish to counter Brown's state court precedents. These rulings, he says, were made prior to the amendments granting African Americans civil rights in times of rampant discrimination.

In his concluding paragraph, Harlan declares the Separate Car Act to be unconstitutional because it harms personal liberty. These kinds of laws make it difficult for African Americans to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and should be banned.

The Long Fight to Overturn Plessy v. Ferguson

It would take 70 years to undo the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" stance taken in Plessy v. Ferguson. In the early years of the 19th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, fought discrimination against African Americans but did not gain much traction until the 1950s when Thurgood Marshall (1908–93), a talented young lawyer who would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice (1967–91), took several cases involving segregation in public education to the Supreme Court—and won. Most notable was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in which segregation in public schools was ruled unconstitutional. Two years later the Supreme Court, upholding a lower court's decision, would end segregation on public buses in Browder v. Gayle in time for it to apply to Rosa Parks's (1913–2005) case in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the section of a bus designated for African Americans would involve civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), begin a civil rights movement that would sweep the nation, and result in real social change. In Bailey v. Patterson (1962) the court recognized it was settled law that a state may not segregate in interstate transportation. Finally, the Supreme Court upheld Congress's Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting all private discrimination in public accommodations.

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