The Supreme Court Case of Plessy V. Ferguson and the Racial Segregation Controversy

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In 1890 the state of Louisiana passed a law requiring separate railway cars for African-Americans and Caucasians. Homer Plessy, who is one eighths African-American, refused to sit in the “blacks only” car and was arrested in 1892. He then filed a petition claiming that he was wrongfully arrested, and that his fourteenth amendment rights were violated. After the case was taken to the Supreme Court, the majority opinion declared that the state law is within constitutional boundaries, and because the railroad cars are “separate but equal” the fourteenth amendment was not violated.

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The dissenting opinion stated that the Separate Cars Act claimed to give equal accommodations to blacks and whites, but in reality it discouraged African-Americans from taking the train because of the poor quality of the African-American cars. The fourteenth amendment was clearly violated, but the court ruling of this case confirmed the idea of segregation between African-Americans and Caucasians and set back the civil rights movement for many decades.This segregation continued for almost sixty years, and was not abolished until the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1951.

The Supreme Court Case of Plessy v. Ferguson and the Racial Segregation Controversy

After slavery ended in 1865, African-Americans were hopeful of finally living a life of freedom and equality. That dream was quickly crushed, however, as Jim Crow laws came into effect in the 1870s and strongly enforced racial segregation. African-Americans were outraged and horrified by this new era, and many began to try resisting these laws. When a law was passed in Louisiana in 1890 providing separate railroad cars for colored and white people, Homer Plessy, an African-American man, sat in a “whites only” railroad car. After refusing to move he was then arrested and taken to jail. This prompted him to file a petition against the law, claiming that it violated the fourteenth amendment that promised equality for all races. After much debate, the Supreme Court ruled that this law did not go against the constitution and that the railroad cars were “separate but equal”, causing much uproar and backlash. Although it was ruled that African-Americans and Caucasians having facilities separate but equal does not infringe the constitution, this case gave the nation justification to separate people based on their skin color and set back civil rights in the United States for many decades (“Plessy v. Ferguson,” 2009).

Beginning in 1861, the Civil War emerged between the northern and southern United States over the issue of slavery. The southern states felt strongly that the usage of slavery was necessary, whereas the northern states felt slavery wasn’t as vital to the economy and should be outlawed (“A Brief Overview,” 2018). After much combat between the states, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 which issued the first steps in abolishing former slaves by banning it in rebelling states. (“Plessy v. Ferguson,” 2009). When the war ended in 1865, the thirteenth amendment was passed to formally abolish slavery at a national level (“Landmark Legislation,” 2019). After the war, a period known as the Reconstruction began, lasting until the end of the 1800s. The Reconstruction aimed towards helping the southern states transition to becoming apart of the northern states again. During this time period, what became known as Jim Crow laws began to be enacted into society. Jim Crow laws were a symbol of white supremacy, establishing different rules for colored people. Through these laws, there was racial segregation impacting the everyday life of African-Americans: seperate schools, cars, and even water fountains. During this Jim Crow era, African-Americans became greatly discouraged, feeling not yet truly free and equal despite what the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments stated (“Jim Crow Laws,” n.d.).

As resentment grew stronger in colored races while more segregation laws continued to be passed, black resistance also mounted. One specific law passed in 1890 mandated all railroad cars in Louisiana to have separate cars for Africans-Americans and Caucasians. This law required the different races to ride in their designated railroad cars only, but claimed that all cars would have equal quality and conditions. It was apparent that the conditions provided for the white passengers were far better than the colored cars. African-Americans began to take action and stand up for themselves, and in 1892 one act of resistance caused a great breakthroughs in the fight for African-American equality (“Plessy v. Ferguson,” 2009).

Homer Plessy, a Louisiana resident only one eighth African-American, purchased a railroad ticket from New Orleans to Covington. Instead of boarding the “blacks only” railroad car, though, Plessy sat in the car reserved for Caucasian passengers. After his refusal to leave, Homer Plessy was arrested and taken to jail on June 7th, 1892. After he was released he filed a petition stating that the Louisiana law prohibiting him from sitting in a certain railroad car violated the Constitution. This case was taken to the Supreme Court, and after many years of discussion the verdict was finally delivered in 1896 on whether or not Louisiana’s law of racial segregation was an unconstitutional infringement of the fourteenth amendment. The Supreme Court declared that any facility “separate but equal” still abided by the Constitution, and because they deemed both railroad cars to be “equal”, the fourteenth amendment was not violated (“Plessy v. Ferguson,” 2009). Additionally, the majority opinion stated that the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments only applied to political and civil rights, not social equality of railroad cars (“The Supreme Court,” n.d.). In the minority of the Supreme Court ruling was one man, Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was once a slave owner himself. He stood up for African-Americans and stated in his dissent that seperation of people based solely on their race was completely against the laws established by the Constitution. This dissent resonated with many citizens, but the decision still remained: separate is equal and people will continued to be segregated by color (“Plessy v. Ferguson,” 2009). African-Americans were outraged at this verdict, feeling they would never be seen as equals or treated fairly.

The Plessy v. Ferguson verdict ultimately gave the nation justification to separate people based on their race, negatively impacting the lives of many African-Americans. For several decades to come, racial segregation was deemed acceptable and Jim Crow laws continued to be enforced. After almost sixty years of persistent discrimination, the civil rights movement finally made substantial progress in 1951 during the Brown v. Board of Education case. This landmark case is arguably the most famous Supreme Court case to date because of the monumental effect it has had in the United States (“Brown v. Board,” n.d.). Similarly to Homer Plessy’s situation, Oliver Brown filed a suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, calling to question the “separate but equal” policy and the fourteenth amendment. Brown’s daughter was denied from attending an “all-white school” and forced to enroll in a school designated for colored students. The “all-black school” she attended was much farther from their home and clearly wasn’t equal to the white school. In 1954 the Supreme Court reached a verdict, finally declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine to be unconstitutional (Editors, 2009). The majority opinion stated that the Court was unanimous in the decision to end segregation. Shortly after, the Supreme Court rightfully eliminated all acts of Jim Crow laws and began taking steps to abolish social inequality (“Brown v. Board,” n.d.).

Although Plessy v. Ferguson wrongly determined social segregation to be acceptable and “separate but equal” laws constitutional, this case provoked African-Americans to fight for their rights. Through this case and Homer Plessy’s activism for equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed and inspired thousands for minorities to join together and work to end discrimination. After the monumental Brown v. Board of Education verdict, all acts of segregation based on color were outlawed and African-Americans felt they had finally won the battle for equality. Homer Plessy died before the Brown v. Board of Education case concluded and never got to witness white and colored people riding on the same railroad car in union. He has been an inspiration to many and his legacy continues to live on; there even is a dedicated “Homer A. Plessy Day” celebrated annually in New Orleans. Although the Plessy v. Ferguson case has been overturned and racial equality has improved tremendously in the past century, there are still instances of segregation in today’s society. People of all races need to join together and continue what Homer Plessy started, to fight for equality until it is completely and totally abolished (“Homer Plessy,” 2016).

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The Supreme Court Case of Plessy v. Ferguson and the Racial Segregation Controversy. (2019, Dec 12). Retrieved from