Plessey versus Ferguson was an important case in Louisiana in 1896 where the Supreme Court ruled that races should be separated on railroads in facilities that were ‘separate but equal’. This was just the sort of decision that the Southern states needed to implement a programme of institutionalized segregation which came with the blessing of the Supreme Court.
The case occurred on 7th June 1892 when Homer Plessey, a black man boarded the Louisiana State Railroad coach and was asked to sit at the back on account of his skin colour. After refusing to do so, he was arrested and the state brought a case against him where he defended himself stating that his rights were denied according to the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. After losing the case in the state of Louisiana he appealed to the Supreme Court where he eventually lost the case on a vote of 7 to 1, an unsurprising verdict as most of the judges came from
Southern states who were zealous in implementing legalized segregation.
Naturally enough, this ruling proved to be a boon for states to force blacks to use separate facilities for practically everything including toilets, eating in restaurants, schools and obviously travelling on trains. More often than not, the facilities provided were separate but far from equal as states could not care less about their negro minority.
The first real issue in this case was that the Constitution declares that ‘all man is created equal’ but this ruling definitely confirmed that he is not, at least according to the colour of his skin. The excuse used and justified by the Supreme Court was that races had different traits and practices and thus were not really comfortable doing things together. This makes a mockery of the 14th Amendment as it is clear that such practices can never be justified or condoned as they open the door to racial discrimination on a wide scale. Naturally states only needed to observe this ruling partially to ensure that they were in line with the law and several Southern states introduced the infamous Black Codes to put the negro on the complete margins of society.
It was only in 1954 that a more liberal Supreme Court finally ruled that Plessey versus ferguson was unconstitutional. The Court based its ruling that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ violated the 14th Amendment and could never be accepted as a just law as it intrinsically discriminated between races and obviously on evidence presented by the NAACP’s lawyer Thurgood Marshall, it was observed that the facilities provided for blacks were far from equal to those for whites. Plessey versus Ferguson remains a landmark case in every respect as it demonstrates the institutionalized racism prevalent in the Deep South and how this was vigorously upholded by a Supreme Court which was no less racist than its Southern counterparts.
Plessey versus Ferguson also shows the courage of a lone man against the whole force of the racist Southern community who chose bravely to defy a whole institution in what were very early years for the civil rights resistance movement. Although he lost the initial battle, the end result was that he started a whole movement for equality which eventually culminated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Irons P (1999); A People’s History of the Supreme Court; Penguin
Medley, Keith Weldon (2003). We As Freeman: Plessy v. Ferguson: The Fight Against Legal Segregation. Pelican Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1589801202.
Darden, Gary Helm. 2009. "The New Empire in the 'New South': Jim Crow in the Global Frontier of High Imperialism and Decolonization." Southern Quarterly 46, no. 3: 8–25. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed February 1, 2010).