Plessy v. Ferguson:

An infamous landmark ruling

By David Adler

Not all landmark Supreme Court decisions are admirable. Some are frankly infamous, including Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896, in Plessy, the court constitutionalized racial segregation in the South. The court’s opinion plundered Black Americans’ newly confirmed rights “guaranteed” by the 13th and 14th Amendments, relegated them to second-class citizenship and imposed a legal stamp of inferiority, denying their humanity and assuring anguish and humiliation.

So much for the myth of wise, dispassionate Supreme Court justices, atop Mt. Olympus, upholding the rule of law while dispensing justice in opinions that reflect unassailable, rigorous reasoning that persuades the reading republic and distinguishes the High Tribunal. The Plessy decision, rather, reflected the widespread racism of the day and the animus toward blacks harbored by many Americans.

Plessy v. Ferguson was a test case designed to challenge the Jim Crow transportation law in Louisiana, which required railroad companies carrying passengers in the state to have “equal but separate accommodations” for white and “colored” persons. Homer Plessy was an octoroon — one-eighth black — who boarded a railroad car in New Orleans and sat in a car reserved for whites. He was arrested when he refused to move to the “black car.”

Plessy was convicted by a state court and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting violation of his 13th and 14th Amendment rights.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, had abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, prohibits states from “making or enforcing” any law that deprives any “person” equal protection of the laws, due process of law and the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States and the state in which they reside.

Justice Henry B. Brown wrote for an 8-1 majority, which left Justice John Marshall Harlan as the lone dissenter. Justice Brown stated that Louisiana did not violate the 13th Amendment. He said, “It is too clear for argument” that the statute implied “merely a legal distinction” between blacks and whites and thus had “no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.” Justice Harlan, in dissent, wrote that compulsory racial segregation constituted a badge of servitude and therefore violated the 13th Amendment.

The principal issue in the case involved the question of whether the segregation law abridged the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Justice Brown’s opinion was grounded on feeble reasoning. He conceded that the purpose of the amendment “was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law,” yet added — in the same sentence — “but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color.”

In fact, the historical record demonstrates that the object of the 14th Amendment was to abolish legal distinctions based on color. Brown’s opinion can make sense only if the reader assumes that the court believed that segregation was not an exercise in racial discrimination and that segregation would violate the Equal Protection Clause if it were discriminatory. 

Justice Brown conceded that a statute implying a legal inferiority in society, diminishing “the security of the right of the colored race” would be discriminatory, but he declared that the state-mandated segregation did not “necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.”

Brown and his colleagues in the majority may have been the only white men in the United States who believed that segregation did not imply the inferiority of blacks. “If this be so,” Brown wrote, “it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it.”  

Evidence of society’s imputation of the racial inferiority of Black Americans was everywhere to be seen in the Jim Crow South. Indeed, Jim Crow laws formed the linchpin of white supremacy: “For Colored Only” represented a label that captured the public disparagement of blacks. Such laws reflected state sanction of civil inequality. The feebleness of Brown’s reasoning was seen in his own acknowledgement that state acts requiring racial segregation were unconstitutional if inferiority was implied or discrimination intended.

The Plessy ruling justified the “separate but equal doctrine” as a legitimate and legal exercise of the state police power, that is, the authority of the state to pass laws to promote the health, safety, morals and welfare of the citizenry. While the court stated that such laws must be “reasonable” and enacted in “good faith” to promote “the public good,” such statutes clearly humiliated and oppressed black citizens. There was nothing reasonable or good about Jim Crow laws unless the measuring stick was that that they served the interests of racists and white supremacists.

Justice Harlan, in his masterful dissent, summed up the harms of segregation. “It permits the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.” Racism at the founding of America, in the form of slavery, was our nation’s original sin. The racism of Jim Crow perpetuated racial tensions. Racism remains an enduring tragedy. 

  Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality.

Send questions about the Constitution to Dr. Adler at [email protected] and he will attempt to answer them in subsequent columns.

This column is provided by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and Humanities North Dakota.