In 1890, Louisiana passed a law prohibiting people of different races from traveling together on trains. This law was one of many forms of segregation, formal and informal, that came to be known as Jim Crow (named after a minstrel song). A group of African
American educators, lawyers, journalists, and civic leaders in New Orleans decided to test the law in court. At the time, New Orleans had the country's largest African American population. "This act," black leaders declared, "will be a license to the evilly disposed...to insult, humiliate and maltreat...those who have a dark skin."
Homer Plessy, a shoemaker whose great-grandmother was black, challenged the law by sitting in a car reserved for white passengers. Despite the fact that he was seven-eighths white, he was arrested and convicted. Plessy's attorney argued that the state law violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
The Supreme Court ruled in Louisiana's favor in 1896. Segregation statutes were constitutional, the court said, as long as equal provisions were made for both races. The court's majority declared:
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, 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's majority distinguished between legal or political equality and social equality. According to the majority opinion, the 14th Amendment only protected legal and political equality.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, the son of a Kentucky slave owner and himself a former Confederate officer, issued the lone dissent, saying it was wrong to separate citizens on the basis of race. "Our Constitution is color blind," he wrote, "...all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful." "What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races," he asked, "than state enactments which...proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior...that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens?"
Harlan, who had a black half-brother 16 years his senior, warned that the Plessy decision "will in time prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case." Harlan's half-brother, Robert Harlan, had purchased his freedom for $500 and gone on to become Ohio's most prominent black Republican.
In the Plessy decision, the court gave its sanction to the "separate but equal doctrine" and gave states permission to legally separate blacks and whites at everything from drinking fountains to schools. Plessy v. Ferguson remained in effect until it was reversed in 1954 by the court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate public schools.
The implications of the Plessy decision for education became apparent three years later. In 1897, the Richmond County, Ga., school board closed the only African American high school in Georgia, even though state law required that school boards "provide of the same facilities for each race, including schoolhouses and all other matters appertaining to education." At that time, the school board provided two high schools for white children. It also provided sufficient funds to educate all white children in the county, while it provided funding for only half of school-aged African American children.
The Supreme Court upheld the county's decision. In the case of Cumming v. School Board of Richmond County, Ga. (1899), it ruled that African Americans not only had to show that a law or practice discriminated against them, but that it was adopted because of "racial hostility."
The issues raised in the Plessy case are at the heart of a debate about race in America today: Whether race may be taken into account in hiring and promoting in the workplace, admission to schools, and the makeup of legislative districts. Today, it is opponents of affirmative action who quote Justice Harlan, arguing that race should not be used to remedy the effects of past discrimination.
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