Plessy v. Ferguson at 125Historians in the News
tags: racism, Jim Crow, Supreme Court, segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson
Kenneth Mack of Harvard Law School and Meira Levinson of Harvard Graduate School of Education discuss the legal regime established by Plessy v. Ferguson and its overthrow by Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1892, on a steamy spring day in New Orleans, Louisiana, a man — a shoemaker by trade — stepped onto a train bound for Covington, a small village due north on the Bogue Falaya River, which empties into Lake Pontchartrain. First-class ticket in hand, he found a seat in the ‘whites-only’ passenger car and waited. When the conductor finally came around, the man — born Homère Adolphe Plessy — refused to move to another car, despite being multiracial. Now he was in violation of Louisiana’s new Separate Car Act, which required “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” An onboard detective arrested Homer, as he was also known, and he spent several hours in jail before being released on bond pending trial.
Plessy’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing for the Court’s majority, concluded that, although the 14th Amendment had established citizenship rights for Black Americans, it “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
If African Americans felt that being separated by race was intended to humiliate or degrade them, Justice Brown wrote, “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 Court went on to reject Plessy’s claim that the act violated his constitutional rights — and affirmed the state’s power to enforce racial segregation so long as accommodations were “separate but equal,” in the infamous phrasing of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s lone dissent.
The decision, which would not be overturned until 1954 in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, placed a seal of approval on the segregationist laws that began to spread across the country.
One hundred and twenty five years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, Kenneth Mack ’91, Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, says there are still lessons to be gleaned from the case: Lessons about the radical and influential strategies employed by Plessy’s team in seeking justice, about the persistence and dedication of activists, and about how “segregation can be rationalized as something neutral,” even today.
To understand Plessy, it is first important to understand what it is not. Plessy was not, says Mack, the origin of “separate but equal.” Instead, it was merely the Supreme Court’s validation of the concept — “the final capitulation of the federal government in the creation of Jim Crow,” he says.
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