Plessy v. Ferguson | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Plessy v. Ferguson | Quotes


A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races ... has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.

Justice Henry Brown

Plessy's legal team argued the Separate Car Act violated Plessy's 13th Amendment rights. Justice Brown finds this argument preposterous. He even expresses disbelief that it would be raised. To him, segregation of railway cars in no way constitutes bonds of servitude nor does it make one race politically inferior to the other.


The object of the amendment was ... to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but ... it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social ... equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.

Justice Henry Brown

Justice Brown refers to the 14th Amendment's purpose in making sure all races are treated equally before the law. However, Brown believes that because all people see color, it would be impossible for the amendment to force people to change their social attitudes about sharing public spaces. Essentially, Brown believes both races would be uncomfortable.


Laws permitting, 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.

Justice Henry Brown

Plessy's legal team argued the Separate Car Act pretends to be impartial in its segregation. But the act is really about catering to the wishes of white people, not the other way around. Brown rejects this notion. He seems to take the law at face value, claiming it does not have to mean either race is superior or inferior.


Every exercise of the police power must be reasonable, and ... enacted in good faith for the promotion for the public good, and not for the annoyance or oppression of a particular class.

Justice Henry Brown

Brown lays the groundwork for his separate but equal philosophy. Essentially, he views segregation as positive and done in the service of the public good. However, he is only thinking in regard to the public good of white people. He believes as long as the accommodations are substantially equal, they are legal. He does not acknowledge the harm segregation does in making African Americans feel inferior and oppressed.


The case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation.

Justice Henry Brown

In the eyes of the law, Brown asserts the only relevant aspect is if the Separate Car Act is a reasonable use of police power. According to the 14th Amendment, states cannot enact laws that "abridge" the federal privileges of being a citizen. States cannot "deprive" a person of his personal liberty. Plessy's legal team argued the Separate Car Act does both, which makes it an "unreasonable" law.


In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established 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.

Justice Henry Brown

Justice Brown displays his prejudice by only considering the "comfort" of white people in the segregation question. He deems the Separate Car Act to be reasonable and justifies this opinion by citing the prevailing social attitudes of the day. He seems to assume not segregating the races would lead to public outcry and disturb the peace for all.


The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races.

Justice Henry Brown

Plessy's legal team argued the Separate Car Act results in African Americans being seen as inferior. Brown sees no merit in this argument. He says it implies the only way African Americans can be seen as equal is if the laws enforce social integration. Brown does not agree with this view, rather believing social prejudice is outside the scope of the law.


Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

Justice Henry Brown

Brown points to the prevailing attitude of the day, which he shared. He agrees that certain racial "instincts" existed that defined interactions between African Americans and white people. White people felt socially superior to African Americans because so many African Americans had been only recently emancipated. African Americans had long been socialized to defer to white preferences. Brown sees no chance of success in the attempt to force a change of attitudes through legislation.


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 Henry Brown

Justice Brown makes a stark distinction between political equality and social equality. The law declares all men equal politically, and so they must necessarily be equal in this regard. However, the law has no power in regard to how people view one another in a social sense and cannot mandate social equality. This is his justification for not striking down segregation.


These notable additions to the fundamental law were welcomed by the friends of liberty throughout the world. They removed the race line from our governmental systems.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Harlan reasserts how essential the 13th and 14th Amendments were for African Americans. The amendments emphasized how slavery had been seen in a negative light not only within the United States but also around the world. These amendments gave every man equal rights, regardless of his race. Harlan believes these amendments were enacted to remove the question of race from the government entirely.


Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Using a phrase such as "everyone knows" went against the strict constructionism of the legal language of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan did not hold back in his disdain for the majority opinion, essentially exposing their arguments as disingenuous. Saying the law ensured equal consideration for both races was only a screen for making sure African Americans were kept out of white spaces.


But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. Our Constitution is color-blind.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Justice Harlan acknowledges Brown's assertion that white people enjoy better social standing and has no doubts they will continue their social dominance. This belief shows that as progressive as Harlan was for the time, he still held a great deal of prejudice. Indeed, Harlan implicitly credits his fellow white people for making laws that allowed all races to be equal in the eyes of the law, which they might not have been otherwise.


The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked ... the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Harlan believes segregation is not the way for the country to move past its legacy of slavery. White people must learn to accept the equality of African Americans in order to secure a better future for both races. Harlan believes laws condoning segregation should not be made lest the rift between the races grow wider.


State enactments regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race can have no other result than to render permanent peace impossible and to keep alive a conflict of races the continuance of which must do harm to all concerned.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

If states continue to enact Jim Crow laws that enforce segregation, Harlan fears the conflict between white people and African Americans will only worsen. Such a situation would not only be detrimental to African Americans, but also to white people, at least in the long run.


The thin disguise of "equal" accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

This statement is a stinging indictment of the majority opinion, which Harlan believes to be a miscarriage of justice. Indeed, the flimsy justification of "separate but equal" did not serve equality at all, as the Supreme Court would later rule in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Plessy v. Ferguson is now considered one of the U.S. Supreme Court's biggest blunders.

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