Understanding

Plessy v. Ferguson

What was the Supreme Court Decision Plessy v. Ferguson?

Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality – a doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal”.  The decision legitimized the many state laws re-establishing racial segregation that had been passed in the American South after the end of the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877).

Plessy v. Ferguson: The Case that Cemented White Supremacy


Excerpt from the article…


White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” the Iowa congressman Steve King inquired of a Times reporter last month. After the remark blew up, King explained that by “that language” he was referring to “Western civilization.” …

From the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, American race relations were largely shaped by states that had seceded from the Union in 1861, and the elected leaders of those states almost all spoke the language of white supremacy. They did not use dog whistles. “White Supremacy” was the motto of the Alabama Democratic Party until 1966. Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, until 1995. …

How did this happen? How did white people in a part of the country that was virtually destroyed by war contrive to take political control of their states, install manifestly undemocratic regimes in them, maintain those regimes for nearly a century, and effectively block the national government from addressing racial inequality everywhere else? Part of the answer is that those people had a lot of help. Institutions constitutionally empowered to intervene twisted themselves every which way to explain why, in this matter, intervention was not part of the job description. One such institution was the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a Nut Shell

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision involved a case that originated in 1892 when Homer Plessy, an “octoroon” (person of seven-eighths white and one-eighth black ancestry) resident of New Orleans, deliberately violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which required “equal, but separate” train car accommodations for white and non-white passengers. Upon being charged, Plessy’s lawyers defended him by arguing that the law was unconstitutional. He lost at trial, and his conviction was affirmed on his appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Plessy then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case.

In May 1896, the Supreme Court issued a 7–1 decision against Plessy ruling that the Louisiana law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating that although the Fourteenth Amendment established the legal equality of white and black Americans, it did not and could not require the elimination of all social or other “distinctions based upon color”

Plessy is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. Despite its infamy, the decision itself has never been explicitly overruled. However, a series of subsequent decisions beginning with the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education —which held that the “separate but equal” doctrine is unconstitutional in the context of public schools and educational facilities—have severely weakened Plessy to the point that it is considered to have been de facto overruled.

However its influence was sweeping. In 1927 a case, Lum v. Rice was unanimously decided by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Howard Taft, the former President of the United States and the other Justices who heard the case were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Brandeis. One of the precedents this Court quoted prominently in support of its decision was Plessy v. Ferguson.

Assessment Tools

Appropriation & Aggression

White Privilege

White Supremacy

Introduction

Definitions

Facts rocks with sun

Facts

Maps

Assessment Tools

Appropriation & Aggression

White Privilege

White Supremacy

Slave Owners Are in Your Pocket

Public Displays

Performance Art

Workshops

Freedom and Justice Crier

Activist Resources

Dear White People

Being Allies

James, Rachel, Dragon

Reparations

Three Candles

Spiritual Foundations

Dear White People

Being Allies

James, Rachel, Dragon

Reparations

Three Candles

Spiritual Foundations

Slave Owners Are in Your Pocket

Public Displays

Performance Art

Workshops

Freedom and Justice Crier

Activist Resources

Introduction

Wood Stack Definitions Menu

Definitions

Facts

Maps

Dear White People

Being Allies

James, Rachel, Dragon

Reparations

Three Candles

Spiritual Foundations

Slave Owners Are in Your Pocket

Public Displays

Theater PTown

Performance Art

Maze

Workshops

Freedom and Justice Crier

Activist Resources

Assessment Tools

Appropriation & Aggression

White Privilege

White Supremacy

Introduction

Wood Stack Definitions Menu

Definitions

Facts

Maps